So different from the Midwest, where the possibilities sprawled bright and endless in every direction.
He wondered if people in the Himalayas and Andes were affected similarly.
Did they live in the passive voice, as if their lives were not really happening but instead were memories fixed and immutable?
-The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash
The Psychology of Language:
In the beginning of the book The World Made Straight a latin professor contemplates if the detachment of living in the mountains of Appalachian poverty don’t affect the sense of agency of the people who live there. He muses about the passive voice. In Latin active and passive voice is indicated with verb conjugation and is harder to learn. In English it is indicated with word order.
In an active voice and passive voice framed sentence the exact same thing can happen, but the tone and feeling of how they happen differ. The voice of the sentence can shift or tilt how we perceive responsibility for something happening.
Active voice is where the action is done by the subject actively. In a passive voice the action happens and the subject receives it passively.
In an active voice the boy kicks the ball.
In a passive voice the ball is kicked by the boy.
In Ron Rash’s book the Latin professor is describing that the effect of alienation and poverty is that one perceives their life to happen to them with no agency or sense of control. We are merely the recipient of the events of our lives chosen by other forces, not the subject of life and arbiters of its direction and purpose. The book is a meditation on choice and individual responsibility in breaking the pull of destructive cycles created by others.
When the German philosopher and part time Nazi Heidegger contended that “language is the house of being” what he meant was that language is not just a tool for communication but the very framework through which we comprehend and make sense of the world. Language provides the structure for our thoughts and the basis for our understanding of reality. Language influences how we perceive and interpret the world around us. It structures our experiences and molds our thinking, determining what can be expressed and understood within the confines of a particular language.
I had a Latin professor tell me that language is like shoes. The words or shoes you never use stay the same, the shoes/words we use all the time change quickly. In this way not only does language have an effect on culture but language also changes with culture as both shape each other interplay.
In the past we have discussed how philosophy, mythology, architecture, music and poetry affect psychology. In this article we discuss the role of the language that we speak on how we think, feel and live.
The English language allows for greater flexibility in word order compared to languages with more rigid structures and complex verb conjugation. English is also very modular and adaptable to other words and changes. This often means that we do not think about the limitations that other languages affect the psychology of the speakers who live within those languages. For example, in English I can say that The ball…. is big and red. This makes you think of the ball first. If I say There is a big, red…..ball, then you think about the qualities first and the subject later. Not all language gives this expressive flexibility.
The psychology of language is a rich field of study that delves into how language shapes human thought, perception, and emotion. Language is not just a tool for communication; it’s a window into the way societies and civilizations think and feel. Several linguistic aspects, including word order, tonal quality, subject-verb order, writing systems, and the use of active and passive voice, offer valuable insights into the cognitive and emotional worlds of ancient civilizations and how language informs our conceptualization and emotions.
Aztec Language and The Divine:
In Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs, the term “Teotl” itself is a key linguistic element. It is used to refer to deities, gods, or sacred powers. In the Aztec pantheon, various gods and goddesses were associated with specific aspects of life, nature, and the cosmos, all of which were considered manifestations of “Teotl.”
Nahuatl verbs often incorporate prefixes and suffixes that convey a sense of divine or sacred action. This linguistic feature reinforces the idea that actions, rituals, and interactions with the world are imbued with the presence of “Teotl.”
For example, verbs may include prefixes like “tlā-” (to give, to provide) or “yō-” (to go in search of) to indicate divine or sacred actions.
Native American Languages and Ownership:
You may have heard the deprecating phrase “indian giver” meaning that someone takes back what they have given. Native Americans who “traded” with the first European settlers had no notion of land ownership and were simply permitting the use of land temporarily by other parties. This lack of possession of nature or ownership is reflected in many First Nations languages.
Many Native American languages are verb-based, which means that verbs are central to sentence structure, and they often carry more information than in English or other European languages. This emphasis on verbs reflects a focus on actions and processes rather than static nouns and ownership. In these languages, the way one talks about land or resources is dynamic, emphasizing activities related to land, such as hunting, gathering, or using the land’s resources. There may be no direct linguistic equivalent for the concept of “ownership.”
Some Native American languages do not have possessive pronouns similar to “my,” “your,” “his,” or “her” in English. This absence reflects a cultural perspective that resists individual ownership and emphasizes communal ties and relationships to the land.
Instead of saying “my land” or “your land,” speakers may use constructions that emphasize relationships, such as “the land of our ancestors” or “the land where we live.”
In some Native American languages, verbs may change forms depending on the relationship between humans and nature. For example, a verb form might indicate that an action is performed in harmony with nature, respecting the interconnections of all living beings and the environment. This linguistic feature reinforces the idea that humans are part of nature and do not “own” or dominate it but rather coexist with it.
Greek Time is a Circle Roman Time is a Line
Ancient Greeks believed in a circular nature of time and an inescapable thread of destiny set by nature.
Man like nature or nature like man
In the Greek Iliad, the opening image of soldiers falling like leaves emphasizes the fragility and impermanence of human life in the face of war. It underscores the idea that humans are subject to the whims of nature and the inexorable march of time, much like leaves that fall from trees in the changing seasons.
Conversely, in the Roman Aeneid, the opening comparison of men to crowd to bees highlights the ordered and purposeful nature of Aeneas’s followers. Bees are often associated with industry and collective effort, echoing the Roman ideal of unity, organization, and determination in the face of adversity.
Ancient Greek has a complex system of verb tenses and aspects that allow for nuanced expressions of time. The use of iterative verb forms, aorist tense, and imperfect tense often conveys the sense of repeated actions or events in the past, aligning with the cyclical view of time. These verb forms emphasize that events recur over time, creating a sense of continuity.
Greek words and concepts related to time often carry cyclical connotations. The Greek concept of “τύχη” (týche), often translated as “fate” or “fortune,” implies a sense of cyclical turns of destiny.
The Roman language emphasizes accomplishment technology and the mastery of the natural world by men. Latin vocabulary and writings often reflect this pragmatic approach to nature and the built environment. The Roman concept of fate (fatum) was less fatalistic than the Greek concept. Romans believed that fate could be influenced or altered through human actions. This more malleable view of fate is reflected in the Latin language, which often conveys a sense of agency and personal responsibility.
Latin has several tenses that imply responsibility and accomplishment in a way that ancient Greek does not. The passive periphrastic is a grammatical construction in Latin used to express an action that must or should be done. It combines a gerundive (a verbal adjective) with a form of the verb “esse” (to be). The result is a periphrastic phrase that conveys the idea of necessity, obligation, or desirability.
Here is Cato’s favorite phrase in Latin: “Carthago delenda est,” “Carthage must be destroyed.”
In Latin the pluperfect tense is used to convey actions that were already completed before a specified point in the past. It is often employed in Latin literature to provide background information or to describe events that occurred prior to the main narrative. Even assigning responsibility for past foundational actions was important. The pluperfect subjunctive tense in Latin can even tell you if someone could have done something but chose not too.
Latin expresses a locus of control of the subject over all tenses of action in a way that the more poetic and philosophical ancient Greek languages are not concerned with. Action and responsibility in ancient Greece is largely irrelevant as even avoiding a prophecy will lead one to fulfill it, like in Oedipus Rex.
Greek philosophers developed specialized terminology to express their ideas about cyclical time. Terms like “panta rhei” (everything flows) and “ekpyrosis” (the cosmic conflagration and renewal) reflect the cyclical nature of existence. These philosophical concepts found their way into the Greek language, reinforcing the idea of a circular, ever-changing universe. Greeks were more concerned with universal truths and concepts than individual accomplishment. Individual accomplishment was a thread pre spun by the gods so it was not really even the heroes choice to accomplish great things. Destiny or prophecy was responsible.
The inflected nature of ancient Greek languages allowed for precise expression of ideas, which was critical in the development of Greek philosophy. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle used the language’s flexibility to articulate their theories with clarity and precision. Rich vocabulary and grammatical structure provided the tools for philosophical inquiry and debate. Greek philosophers engaged in deep contemplation on subjects ranging from ethics and metaphysics to politics and science, shaping the direction of the development of language.
Ancient Phoenician is for Trading:
The Phoenician script primarily consisted of consonants, with vowels often omitted. This script’s economy may suggest a pragmatic and concise approach to communication, possibly reflecting the Phoenicians’ practical and trade-oriented culture. Phoenician was a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic. Semitic languages often prioritize verb roots, implying a focus on actions, ownership and consequences. It is also one of the rare languages that puts the subject at the END of every sentence, putting action and consequences first.
Old Norse is a Story:
Old Norse is a story teller’s language and Norse culture was obsessed with storytelling, or sagas. Even an individual’s story was a mere part of their family’s story or the king’s story. The God’s did not make fate but neither did the individual. The Norse were all part of a larger story with total individual agency but individuals were merely partially important. This is because all individuals are part of a larger story. Old Norse had a rich system of verb tenses, including present, past, and future tenses, along with subjunctive and imperative moods. This complexity reflected a culture that was attuned to the passage of time and the importance of temporal distinctions.
The culture placed value on clarity of communication, particularly in legal matters and storytelling. The sagas, for example, often employed a straightforward narrative style that prioritized clarity in recounting historical events and legal disputes. Even legal cases were relayed as stories. Old Norse typically used a relatively flexible word order, where word endings and contextual cues played a significant role in determining grammatical relationships. This linguistic feature allowed for various nuances of expression and poetic creativity.
In Old Norse there is a verbal construct known as the kenning. Kennings are essentially metaphors that replace a straightforward or literal word with a more imaginative and evocative phrase. Instead of using a common noun, a kenning paints a picture by describing what the object does, how it functions, or its characteristics. For example, the Old Norse kenning foam crushing sea rider, means boat, because the boat crushes waves on the sea. Whale road means the path of headwinds on the sea, because that is the road whales travel. With a kenning even a simple noun can become a story with a poetic context or narrative implication.
Mandrin and Universality of Knowledge:
Mandarin’s complex writing system and the absence of a clear distinction between direct quotes and paraphrased content can create challenges in teaching students how to properly cite and attribute sources. The subtleties of citation may be less intuitive in Mandarin than in languages with distinct quotation marks or punctuation.
To address these challenges and promote a culture of academic integrity, many Chinese educational institutions have been working to integrate Western-style citation and source attribution practices into their curriculum. This east vs west cultural disparity reflects a profound difference of cultural assumptions largely based on the nature of our languages.
Whew, ok I think that is all I remember from reading myths in undergrad.
Language shapes how we conceptualize the world around us and how we express our thoughts and emotions. It’s not merely a tool for communication but a powerful influence on our cognitive processes and emotional experiences. By studying the linguistic features of ancient civilizations, we gain insights into their values, priorities, and ways of thinking. Moreover, understanding the psychological underpinnings of language helps us appreciate its profound impact on our own thoughts, emotions, and interactions in the modern world.
Here are a few more important elements of the way we speak and think in different languages.
1. Word Order:
The order in which words appear in a sentence can reveal the priorities and perspectives of a culture. For example, some languages place adjectives before nouns (e.g., “red apple”), while others place them after (e.g., “pomme rouge” in French). This distinction can reflect whether a culture values the inherent qualities of an object (as in English) or its contextual attributes (as in French). The word order can also reveal cultural preferences for directness or subtlety.
2. Tonal Quality:
Tonal languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, use pitch variations to convey meaning. The psychological impact of tonal quality extends beyond mere communication. It can shape how speakers perceive and interpret emotions, intentions, and the nuances of a conversation. The tone used can affect whether a statement is interpreted as a question, command, or statement, influencing the listener’s emotional response.
3. Subject-Verb Order:
The choice of subject-verb order in a language can reflect cultural values and cognitive priorities. Languages with a subject-verb-object (SVO) structure, like English, often prioritize the doer of an action. In contrast, verb-subject-object (VSO) languages may emphasize the action itself. This linguistic difference can shape how cultures perceive agency, responsibility, and causality.
4. Writing Systems:
The way a language is written can provide insights into the historical, cultural, and cognitive aspects of a society. For instance, complex logographic scripts, like Chinese characters, may reflect the importance of memorization and attention to detail in the culture. Alphabetic scripts, on the other hand, may prioritize phonetic accuracy and abstraction.