Saturday, March 23, 2013

Changing thought by changing speech

By introducing changes in how
we speak, the media often changes
how we think.
We tend to think of language as something posterior to thought. A thought comes into your mind and then you find the right words to express it.

Anthropologists and neuroscientists are currently doing some fascinating work on the relationship between thought and speech and have discovered that things are a little more complicated. Speech does not merely proceed from our thoughts like a one-way street. Rather, researchers have been finding that there is also traffic flowing in the other direction: how we speak affects how we think about the world on a level that our conscious minds may never even be aware. As psychologist Lera Boroditsky put it in a Wall Street Journal article summarizing some of this research, “the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express”.

There are fascinating examples of this from all over the world, but the phenomenon is just as evident close to home. In the last forty years, we’ve seen how the way people speak about unborn children (i.e., calling them “foetuses” or “lumps of tissue” instead of babies) has had an unconscious effect on how so many people think about the ethics of abortion. Or again, how we think about homosexuality has been enormously influenced by pairing homosexuality with words that already had a positive semantic range, such as gay. In David Kupelian book The Marketing of Evil, he showed that these and many other language shifts did not just happen, but arose out of a deliberate strategy for changing the way Westerners perceive certain key issues.

The same thing is now occurring in the debate over same-sex marriage.

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