Before there was spin…

Written By: - Date published: 9:42 pm, July 1st, 2009 - 11 comments
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When we talk politics we often use words like positioning, frame, context – words are a vital part of the programme of political communication. Here’s a really interesting thought from US academic Lera Boroditsky, who asks  How does our language shape the way we think?

…patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think. In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking. Beyond abstract or complex domains of thought like space and time, languages also meddle in basic aspects of visual perception — our ability to distinguish colors, for example. Different languages divide up the color continuum differently: some make many more distinctions between colors than others, and the boundaries often don’t line up across languages.

Does this mean we think about politics differently too?

11 comments on “Before there was spin…”

  1. r0b 1

    Similar ideas in literature (Orwell’s 1984 “newspeak“) and the study of language (linguistic relativity). Fascinating to explore this kind of stuff. On the face if it it seems pretty plausible that the vocabulary and structures of our language influences the way that we (typically) think…

    [Off topic – the Standardistas have been running hot – is this a record for number of posts in a single day?]

  2. Lew 2

    Does this mean we think about politics differently too?

    Of course it does. Wittgenstein: the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

    This is why Don Donovan just doesn’t get the Mãori need for their own reo. He has his, after all, anything else is self-indulgent bloody-mindedness. And 640k should be enough for anyone!


    • r0b 2.1

      I can’t completely agree with the big W though. There are non linguistic ways of thinking – spatial, musical, mathematical, visual, emotional. Language is a big part of it, but it isn’t everything…

      • Lew 2.1.1

        r0b, assuming a semiotic definition of ‘language’, something like ‘system of signifiers and referents’, it holds. Granted, that’s not what he was strictly on about, but that’s how ideas progress.


        • r0b

          I’ll still disagree Lew. We do a lot of thinking below the level of what could reasonably be called signifiers (at least discrete well defined signifiers). A lot of our thinking is more “mushy” – for want of a better word – more mushy than that, more probablistic and continuous, more like watercolours blended on a canvas than oil paints in separate tubes. Where does a given concept begin and end? Usually no good answer to that…

      • Chris 2.1.2

        The limits of Wittgenstein’s world is his world, and not anyone elses.

        There are non-linguistic ways of thinking, but also non-linguistic ways of speaking; think of our cities for example – that collection of big office buildings in the CBD, the smaller mixed fringe areas, the bedroom suburbs – what do they say?

        Doing discourse does my head in sometimes; everything is discourse.

      • lyndon 2.1.3

        Language is what we normally use to pin down what we think and communicate it clearly, so it would shape the habits of thought for individuals and society.

        That might actually be why abstract arts like music and dance are important – as an antidote.

        But considering you’re having this argument in the comments section of a blog, I wouldn’t underplay the effect too much.

    • felix 2.2

      If I think about this stuff too long I end up with more eggs than I can eat and more chickens than I’d want to.

      • Lew 2.2.1

        Yeah. Semiotics and discourse/content/textual analysis hurts my brain, too, and I do it for a living : )


  3. Quoth the Raven 3

    Here’s the Stanford encyclopedia entry on Linguistic Relativity.

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