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Dec 30, 2013   //   by Patricio   //   Blog  //  No Comments

Johnson: Does speaking German change how I see social relationships?

LAST week’s column was about the languages that have both formal and informal pronouns for you. It seems that, at least in the European languages, the informal pronouns are ascendant.

But they are a far from gone, and their persistence brings to mind another topic. That is the idea that languages shape thought in profound ways, a topic that Johnson has looked at before. In some languages, literally every time you say you, you have to express how you see the relationship between you and the other person. Is that person a friend, family member or child? Or, rather, a colleague, boss, old person, telemarketer or simply someone you don’t feel close to? The word depends on the relationship.

So do these languages force their speakers to pay more attention to social relationships? The idea is popular, but controversial among linguists and psychologists.

One argument for the language-shapes-thought hypothesis is that while languages may not constrict thought, they may nudge or steer it. Roman Jakobson, a linguist, once said that “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” How do two-pronoun systems play into this? In German, I must choose du or Sie every time I address someone. According to the logic of language shaping thought, I should therefore be more aware of social relations when I speak German. But in reality, I have found the need to use a certain form of “you” a boring chore—tricky and a bit tedious. Trying to figure out the best way to address people is more of a speed bump than a new way of seeing the world.

A believer in the language-shapes-thought idea might argue that speaking German doesn’t push me to always be more conscious of social relationships because I’m a non-native speaker, and so I haven’t developed the habits of mind of lifelong German speakers. But plenty of native speakers of two-pronoun languages find this system irksome and awkward, just as I do. Native ability in French does not allow one to immediately sort all the world’s people neatly into tu and vous. Marginal cases abound. A new coworker your age? The next-door neighbour you are meeting for the first time, but whom you will soon be asking for a cup of sugar? A stranger at a bar? Certain older relatives? Native-speakers of double-“you” languages report many such situations. And they differ quite a lot internally on how much attention they pay to formality—as do English-speakers, despite the lack of two pronouns.

In other words, in a strong version of the language-shapes-thought hypothesis, every German should always have an immediate instinct regarding who is du and who is Sie. But they don’t. They may care which pronoun to use, but they often struggle (and are aware of the struggling), because the language forces this binary distinction on the nebulous relationships of the real world.

But there is another way in which the double-“you” distinction may nudge thought. It refers to what Dan Slobin, a linguist, has called “thinking for speaking”. Speakers of different languages may well see the world similarly most of the time, but when people are specifically planning to say something, different languages may temporarily force speakers to pay more attention to certain distinctions. For example, every time a German person says “you”, a little attention must be paid to formality. So split pronouns (or other features) may act as a kind of “prime” for certain thoughts or behaviours. Primes can be powerful. Every time I refer to my boss, for example, the formal “you” may prime me to be more aware of the formality and hierarchy of our relationship. So too when I must address an old friend.

But such priming is transient. A bigger question is whether differences between languages persist when people are not “thinking for speaking”—ie, whether they condition something we might call a robust worldview. When silently strolling down country lane, do speakers of different languages think in profoundly different ways? The popular view is “yes”, but furious debate among researchers continues.

(Izvor:; 12/12/2013; R.L.G. – Berlin)

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