We might sometimes be tempted to think that the main differences between languages concern just their vocabulary, maybe some grammatical areas, and not much more. Especially those who are not experts in the field of linguistics may not be familiar with the idea that language features convey a wide range of different meanings and can even shape our perception of reality.
British comedian Tom Scott included a playlist called “Tom’s language files” in his popular YouTube channel. All the videos in the playlist, meant for a general audience, explain in a simple yet well-documented way some of the most engaging topics of linguistics.
One of them, “Fantastic Features We Don’t Have In The English Language” (and, I would add, in most European languages), is particularly interesting as it approaches various important studies in sociolinguistics, cognitive linguistics, and even anthropology.
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The first feature Tom Scott talks about is time independence: while in the English language temporal information is direct, meaning that the verb conjugations force speakers to imply whether something happened, is happening now, or will happen (e.g. I ate, I’m eating, I will eat), some other languages – such as Mandarin Chinese, Thai, Guaraní (an indigenous language of Paraguay) – are tenseless, which means their speakers can refer to time through other lexical elements such as adverbs, but are not required to. There have been studies on whether our perception of time is somehow influenced by the way temporality is represented in the language we speak.
The second feature is clusivity. Nearly all European languages don’t have a grammatical distinction between inclusive and exclusive first-person pronouns or verbs: in English, “we” can refer to either the speaker and the addressee (“me and you”), or the speaker and someone else (“me and someone else, but not you”). The distinction is not clear unless specified through other linguistic tools. Clusivity is extremely common throughout South Asia and Australasia: it represents a characteristic feature of Mandarin Chinese, Guaraní, Tok Pisin (English-Melanesian pidgin spoken throughout Papua New Guinea), and most Austronesian languages.
Another interesting linguistic feature is absolute direction. In some languages, particularly those spoken within Aboriginal Australian communities, the speakers talk about space in a rather unconventional way. Instead of using terms such as “back”, “forward”, “left”, and “right”, they define space through cardinal-direction terms (e.g. “move that pen to the northwest”). Lera Boroditsky’s research on Kuuk Thaayorre, a language spoken in a small indigenous community in Northern Australia, is enlightening and extremely influential in this field. According to her, “one obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly”. This does mean that the said language feature affects its speakers’ space perception: Thaayorre people are forced by their language to always be aware of where they are, even when they end up in an unfamiliar environment – while not many Europeans, if asked where the south is, would be able to give an immediate answer.
The last feature is evidentiality. When talking about events, English speakers are not forced to specify the nature of the evidence on which a statement is based (e.g. whether they personally witnessed the event, whether they have just been told by someone else, etc.). In some other languages, however, evidentiality is automatically included in their words – just like temporality in English. All languages, obviously, have lexical tools for the optional specification of the source of knowledge, but grammatical evidentiality is not as common. It exists in many Turkic and South American languages: some of them have up to five different categories of evidentiality!
Tom Scott’s conclusion is that these (and many more) interesting language features give us “the insights that we gain of what the human mind is capable of“. In order not to lose them, we should do all we can to protect endangered languages and keep them alive.
Written by Silvia Morani
Communication Trainee at TermCoord