That New York Times article, what I really meant & other updates

Many of you know that I participated in a New York Times article discussing the language of instruction in higher education in the Gulf with special interest on Qatar (which has now been copied, pasted, and quoted in many other forums, newspapers and blogs). To get to the point, some readers found it offensive that I blamed the Thai/Philippine accent on the demise or weakness of Arabic among Gulf speakers- I did not. I did not blame any accent and really to make a relationship between the two is nonsensical, immature and unheard of in linguistics. What readers must appreciate is, that the journalist will interview the participant for 15-20 minutes and then he’ll pick and choose which quotes look good where. He has to build his story, each writer has a focus and intention behind the questions they ask and how they want their readers to understand their story of interest. The other thing is that the journalist is not a linguist and so cannot be blamed for linguistic/language learning misconceptions misread in the article, the onus is on us linguists to deliver the correct information. I did explain this on Twitter but felt compelled to do so here in case the same was felt by other readers, this is not an apology – just a clarification. Why did I say that some children in the Gulf speak with a Thai of Philippine accent? Simply to illustrate to the writer the multicultural multilingual environment many children in the gulf grow up in. With domestic maids from the Far East many children’s initial exposure to English is through these maids and so if their parents speak no English (or very bad English) they can only learn from the maids hence the acquisition of the accent.  Thereafter, throughout their lives the linguistic landscape of young people growing up in the Gulf gets ever more complex and in the end everyone worries about the status of Arabic language and it’s future (not to mention the poor English standards as well) etc….something I’ve talked about before on this blog and at length in a book chapter I wrote last year (“Ahyaanan I text in English ‘ashaan it’s ashal: Language Crisis or Linguistic Development? The Case of How Gulf Arabs Perceive the Future of their Language, Culture, and Identity” a bit of a mouthful).  As always I am open to comments/ discussion on this if anyone wishes, just leave a comment on the blog and I’ll be happy to reply.

On a different note, Twitter is now available in Arabic!!! Which means that people who prefer to use the Arabic version can without any worries (simply choose Arabic under languages). There are adequate substitutes for retweet, favourite, direct message and we are still working to translate words so they make sense in Arabic properly (not half-baked translations). If you are on Twitter and wish to follow the progress of this development or wish to participate follow @taghreedat for more info. There are also efforts by the founders of Taghreedat to make the first collaborative online Arabic dictionary so far it’s going well and I’ll update you as more information comes through.

My next post will be on naming rights as an outcome of strong and cultured civilization and what language has to do with it all, it will be based on a video lecture which I will put up….I promise you it will be an interesting video to watch. That may well be the last post (I might also get a guest post on Arabic and humour :))  for a while and I’ll hopefully resume posting after September depending on my thesis writing/revision commitments at the time. Without intending to nag anyone, please avoid plagiarising from this blog, as I hate receiving emails from teachers and tutors about that, at the moment I have been advised to move the site to another platform…please stop copying simply refer to my sources or quote the blog URL (which I usually give permission for, after an email from the student).  Thank you for comments, emails, questions and welcome to new readers from Tunisia, Nicaragua and Poland!

I am still thinking- does language affect the way I think? The New York Times super article

In the last post I said I’d post the popular article featured in last month’s New York Times, titled: Does language affect the way you think? I have pasted some of the article below, please go and read the rest… is a good read.


by Guy Deutscher

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century.

At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

Horacio Salinas for The New York Times

 In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain types of information that can be left to the context in other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

BUT IS THERE any evidence for this happening in practice?

Let’s take genders again. Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim. What, for instance, is particularly feminine about a Frenchman’s beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her? Mark Twain famously lamented such erratic genders as female turnips and neuter maidens in his rant “The Awful German Language.”……….. READ THE REST HERE


See? How interesting was that? He could have also added Arabic as a language that assigns the masculine, feminine, and sometimes neutral gender! Maybe one day we’ll get to the bottom of this.  The writer has written a book, ‘Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages’  to be published by Metropolitan Books. I thinnk it’s a must read for anyone intersted in the topic, I have just ordered my copy so maybe I’ll put up a review!