Language is a window into the world

18.2.2015
Language has an indisputable impact on our world view. Not only does it influence us through the cultural heritage it conveys, but also through vocabulary and grammar.

Is there any difference between cleaning or brushing your teeth? Do you write things up or down? And what, pray, makes a cat feminine and a dog masculine? The linguistic expressions we use stem from the world views of earlier language users and essentially influence our perceptions of the world.

Janne Saarikivi, a researcher of Finno-Ugrian languages at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, believes that we inherit our individual world views from the surrounding community through language. While the resulting perspectives are language-dependent, they also exhibit similarities.

Culture spreads in written form

"Language communities are beginning to resemble each other as we generate more and more written material and make it readily available to all," says Saarikivi. "This is also how works spread between cultures. You could argue that cultural masterpieces such as those written by our Aleksis Kivi are simply Finnish manifestations of cultural forms created elsewhere."

Our world view is shaped by our language community but also by the structure and vocabulary of the language we speak. Words and expressions influence what we observe around us – whether concrete substances such as snow, or abstract notions such as freedom or love. Cross-cultural communication, for one, becomes difficult if we don’t pick up the nuances of translated words.

"You don’t have to travel all that far to find that the basic concept of freedom can have very different meanings," Saarikivi points out. "In Russian, it also refers to anarchy and chaos, which is why the Russian demonstration slogan which translates directly into English as ‘No to freedom!’ does not make sense as such. What the demonstrators really opposed was chaos and disorder."

Left or south-east?

Research has even been conducted on the impact of grammar on our world view. According to the results, grammatical gender really does affect whether objects are perceived as being masculine or feminine. The interpretation of colours is also linked to language, as are the interrelations between things and our sense of direction.

"Some languages don’t distinguish between left and right, but instead use compass points to express the same difference," explains Saarikivi. "When speakers of such languages talk about something happening in the south-east, they usually have an excellent sense of where south-east actually is."

A broader range of languages

We never see the world as it is, but as we are.

Saarikivi describes languages as windows into the world. New languages open new windows, jolt our perceptions and broaden our horizons. Saarikivi would like people to examine the world also through windows other than those opened by the English language. In his opinion, English has such a strong hold on the world that we could let go of teaching it the way we do.

Instead, we could make better use of all the other language skills in Finland. At school, multilingual children could teach one another and in kindergartens, non-native Finnish speakers could be recruited and trained to speak their mother tongue to the children.

"It would be interesting to study the resulting world views," Saarikivi muses.

In March and April 2015, researchers and other experts will take us on journeys into different world views. Read more about the New World View science programme and join the conversation (#maailmankuva).

New World View 16 March – 12 April 2015

Think Corner