It’s a question that’s been pondered for millennia: does language influence culture? Or is language just a way we express ourselves and our culture? Put differently, does the specific language that we learn from birth affect how we see the world around us, how we take in information, and how we process that information? Or is there simply a universal grammar off which all languages are based? If that is the case, then languages would, at heart, be more similar to one another than different, and that could not account for the vast array of cultural differences present in our world.
One set of language researchers thinks they’ve found at least some answers to these questions. Linguistic psychologists Alice Gaby and Lera Boroditsky traveled to Australia to engage speakers of Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community located in Queensland, who understand direction very differently from the way speakers of English, French or Russian do. Pormpuraawns use the directions north, south, east and west to describe spatial orientation (for example, I might say you are sitting to my right, whereas Pormpuraawns would say you are seated to my southeast). The researchers found that the Pormpuraawns are “remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.” They suggest that this is related to the fact that spatial orientation is extremely present in their language, to the point that their equivalent question to “How are you?” translates as “Where are you going?” and an answer might be “A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?”
Perhaps even more interesting is their Pormpuraaw concept of time. In most Western cultures, time is imagined progressing from left to right (imagine a timeline, or a series of photographs of someone running. Would you organize them from left to right?). Pormpuraawns instead attach their time to the cardinal directions (from east to west)—so if they are sitting facing south, time goes left to right. If they are sitting facing north, it goes right to left, and so forth.
The article describes many other interesting ways in which language appears to significantly influence cultural differences. It also goes on to suggest that if people learn a second language, they also learn a new way of understanding and viewing the world around them. And this suggests that it’s primarily language that shapes culture, and not the other way around.
What do you think? Do you imagine space, or time, or place, or colors differently in your Native language? What do you think of the researchers’ claim that language is primarily responsible for how we see and interpret our world?
One thing this research shows is certain—if Indigenous languages are not preserved, protected and revitalized, we are losing a lot more than just a way of speaking.