If you believe it’s not really important how you phrase things as long as you make your point, you might want to rethink that idea. Most people believe that you start by thinking over an idea in your mind and coming to some conclusions, and then you put those into the words of the language you speak, to communicate them to others. But as it turns out, sometimes it’s the other way around. Believe it or not, sometimes the language you speak – its structure, its vocabulary, and the categories it contains – actually determines how you think in the first place.
The Wall Street Journal online version had a great article about this a few days ago: Lost in Translation. (**) The author, Lera Boroditsky, a psychology professor at Stanford, talks about studies that have shown that language constructs our reality as much as our reality constructs the language.
That’s kind of scary, and yet I’ve found it true in several instances. Take the example of a conservative religious man I was once talking to about whether men and women had a predestined “role” in a male-female relationship. I was describing several couples I knew where the woman was more dominant than the man and the relationship worked just fine. Then my companion said, “But doesn’t it just feel unnatural to have a domineering woman in a relationship?”
Did you catch the subtle word change there? I had been using the word “dominant,” which is a fairly neutral word, doesn’t automatically carry a negative connotation, and can apply to any member in a relationship. But he had switched to the word “domineering,” which automatically carries a negative connotation and, what is worse, is almost never applied to men, but primarily to women. A listener accepting the word “domineering” without challenge has already had their opinion subtly slanted in a negative direction toward strong women.
I noticed something similar on a larger scale at university, when I was studying philosophy and auditing a reading-German course. While all languages are quite complex in their structure, German sentence structure is more complex than a lot of them, especially compared to the French I’d been taught in school. So it came as no surprise to me that philosophers and theologians used to thinking in German tended to produce much more complex and heavy writings than those who grew up to think in French. And this was even when those scholars were expressing almost exactly the same ideas.
All of this means that we need to be careful how we phrase things, and be aware of the meanings of the words we use. Are we trying to manipulate our readers’ opinions by using words that slant in a particular direction? That’s a valid use of words if that’s our purpose, but we’d better be aware that we’re doing it, especially if they start objecting. And we should be equally aware of what words we ourselves accept without questioning them. Someone else could be manipulating us, too, and we might not even recognize it.
But beyond issues of manipulation lies another possibility. As Boroditsky says, “It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world.”
Want to expand your reality? Phrase words differently. Examine word meanings. And if you really want to blow that reality wide open – learn the vocabulary, grammar, and structure of another language entirely.
(** I’m not sure how long the WSJ keeps articles online and whether it eventually archives them so you have to pay to read them.)