The Mutability of Language

In my blog post “Recursive Memory” I discuss how important it is for people to be aware of what “script” they are drawing from, using Dr. McCoy’s words. By this I meant that people should doubt the information they are disseminating and using in their lives. Quite frequently, words and phrases people use have connotations and contexts they never realized were there prior to some careful introspection. This is important to note, considering how influential language is to how people perceive the world and process information; that and how people perceive each other.

This whole idea of “plugging into a socket” or utilizing a “script” got me thinking about a TED Talk that I watched recently. The talk is given by Lera Boroditsky and is called “How Language Shapes the Way We Think.” In the talk, Boroditsky discusses an Aboriginal group she worked with in Australia, the Kuuk Thaayorre. What’s interesting about this community is that they always orient themselves using cardinal directions—north, south, east, west. For example, rather than saying something is “to the left” someone from this Aboriginal community will say it is “to the east.” Words like “right” and “left” don’t exist in their language. This even applies to greetings. the Kuuk Thaayorre don’t say “hello” to one another, rather, they ask one another “in which way/direction are you going?”

For the Kuuk Thaayorre, this connection to direction extends outside a difference in language—it’s a worldview. The Kuuk Thaayorre even think about time in terms of cardinal directions. Boroditsky notes that when organizing pictures chronologically, a member of the Kuuk Thaayorre will adjust how they organize with relation to where they are spatially positioned. When facing east, members of this community will arrange the pictures toward themselves, when facing south, left to right, etc.; the order is based on east to west. This is different than someone from America, for example, who will always arrange the photos chronologically left to right independent of direction. The language dictates how people view the world and abstract concepts.

What does this have to do with drawing from a “script” and my previous blog post? Well, given how important language is, it’s important to not “plug into sockets” or scripts without knowing where they’re coming from. The words people use have power and don’t strictly convey superficial information. There is a deeper context that is rooted into the language, as the Kuuk Thaayorre demonstrate. Therefore, when people utilize “scripts” without understanding the language or ideas they’re using, they could potentially be taking on problematic perspectives or world-views. Even worse, using language that implies a bigoted view can either make it easier for the individual to adopt those views or appear to accept them.

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