x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Do we produce language or are we its products?

We essentially translate thought into whatever language or languages we happen to know. So while language might not constrain thought, questions remain as to how and to what extent languages might influence our thoughts.

Imagine a tribe in a distant land whose language had 126 different words for hate, but no word for friend. Would we want to visit such a place?

What do such linguistic differences really say about our national and regional characteristics? Do the languages we speak shape our perceptions of reality, moulding and constraining our world-views?

In the UAE, two of the world's great languages vie for attention within the educational system, in some cases even within the same classroom. Questions concerning the relationship of language to thought and behaviour seem particularly worthy of sustained "psycholinguistic" research here.

The idea that language impacts thought has been around for a while, with its most radical form termed "linguistic determinism". A fanatical determinist might rather unfeasibly suggest that language constrains thought, right down to our perceptions of the world. So if we don't have a word in our language for yellow, then we can't see yellow. There are, however, several languages that only have words for black, white, and red, and the speakers of these languages can indeed differentiate and recognise the full colour spectrum, yellow, pink, and even lilac, teal and azure if required to.

A less radical version of linguistic determinism is the linguistic relativity hypothesis. This idea makes the less dramatic claim that language shapes, rather than determines thought. A fairly tenuous strand of evidence for the relativity hypothesis is the legendary idea that Eskimos have hundreds of different words for snow (they don't). The argument suggests that because there are words for certain concepts, these things become easier to see and experience. Perhaps the words we use effect our behaviour in subtle ways.

Eskimo languages actually have about seven words for snow, but this was such a cool idea it left the halls of academia, became an urban legend, and the number of Eskimo words for snow multiply with each retelling of the tale. The Arabs have 900 different words for sand. I'm kidding, but you can see how these urban myths catch on.

In weaker forms the relativity hypothesis lives on but experimental evidence and case studies of language-less adults and pre-linguistic infants point to an idea Dr Steven Pinker, Director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Brain Institute, calls "mentalese". Dr Pinker suggests that there is a language of thought that is independent of the language of the mouth. He argues that we essentially translate thought into whatever language or languages we happen to know. So while language might not constrain thought, vital questions still remain as to how and to what extent languages might influence our mentalese/thoughts.

So what about the frequency with which we use words within any given language? Or the words we rate as most likeable? Surely these metrics give us some clues about the character of a language and its speakers.

I recently explored word frequencies in written English as part of a research collaboration. All of the frequency counts of words were based on the British national corpus, a compilation of 4,000 texts reflecting present day language use in Britain. Some of these word counts are pretty informative, and worth sharing.

For example, in written English the most frequently mentioned day of the week is Sunday. It receives 93 mentions per million words and is followed closely by Saturday (83). Tuesday is the least mentioned day of the week with at a mere (36).

If we take frequency of use as a proxy for fondness, then the British are a nation of weekend lovers. The most frequently mentioned sport in written English is, you guessed it, football (67) followed by cricket and golf joint second with 34 mentions. The most frequently mentioned animal is horse (126), closely followed by dog (124), with cat coming a very distant third (55).

The British are not cat people. They do, however, love their mothers. The most commonly used kinship term in written, and especially spoken English - the British version, of course - is mum (951) followed by a distant dad (598). We can also conclude that the British are "UK-centric" with the word British (357) overwhelmingly the most frequently used adjective to denote region or nation; this is followed by European (195), American (157), English (150), and then French (134).

My own personal favourite metric for word frequency is the use of city names. In written English, the most frequently used city name is, of course, London (351), but my home city, Liverpool (55), is a respectable seventh, just ahead of its arch rival, eighth placed Manchester (50).

There is much more to be done in this field than study word-preferences and likability. Some of the greatest work in language theory has come out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I hope that collaboration between MIT and Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) will bolster other ties between Abu Dhabi and MIT, perhaps even into to the connections between language and thought. There aren't many other places where so many languages and ways of thinking come together than here in the UAE.

Justin Thomas is an assistant professor in psychology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.