Confused by cultural associations?
Does the structure of the languages we speak shape the way we experience the world? New research suggests it certainly does. Constantly being forced to choose our words influences the way we see reality.
Of course, each language has its own unpredictable conceptual peculiarities. In most European languages, even inanimate things have a gender, which often seems random, like das Mädchen and der Busen or der Mond and la lune. Lera Boroditsky has been able to prove that grammatical genders lead us to make "feminine" and "masculine" associations with the objects around us, cultural distinctions that are lost in English.
Spatial concepts also differ. Many indigenous peoples around the globe, speaking nearly a third of the world's languages, won't say "turn left" when they give directions. Instead, they'll give the cardinal directions and tell you to "turn north". But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Trained by their language, they have a far better general sense of orientation than we do. Similarly, Russian has more names for shades of blue, hence speakers seem to be better at distinguishing them.
In English, we place particular emphasis on who does what. So we say "Paul crashed the car", even when it was an accident. By contrast, speakers of Spanish or Japanese would say "The car crashed". Germans take the sense of agency out of the sentence when they use a noun: Paul hatte einen Autounfall.
Preoccupied with verbs, English speakers use the tenses constantly to make a series of highly differentiated decisions regarding the time frame. Wir gehen in die Kirche serves multiple purposes, but in English we'd have to specify whether "We're going to church" (now), "We go to church" (every Sunday) or perhaps "We'll be going to church" (later).
English also requires clarity about whether an action is reciprocal, as in "We like each other". German is far less clear: Wir mögen uns sounds reflexive, like "We like ourselves", but of course it isn't. The most confusing German "goodbye" from an English speaker's point of view would probably be Man sieht sich. Sorry: Who is seeing or will see whom, and when?
How well can you apply these conceptual differences in context? Test yourself on the next page.
You wrote: "Feminine gender is sometimes applied to words describing vessels (Gefäße) such as cup, glass and ship because they can contain something, like a woman's womb (Gebärmutter) can contain a child."
Does the feminine gender apply to "cars", too?
Thanks for your comment, Anne.
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