Language is a fascinating subject, and it’s no wonder so many people – including JRR Tolkien and Stephen Fry – are passionate about it. For instance, did you know that your mother tongue can even affect the way you view the world?

In 2010, Caitlin Fausey and her team at Stanford University in California conducted an experiment to see just how much the language a person speaks influences their perceptions of a situation.

Now for the science

Students who participated in the research watched a series of films of people breaking things, either accidentally or on purpose. One video showed people breaking eggs, another popping balloons and another spilling a drink.

Some time after watching the videos, the participants were given a memory test in which they had to describe each clip. Discussing the films where the people had clearly broken something on purpose, all the participants, no matter what language they spoke, gave a largely identical account by answering who was responsible for the damage.

However, there was an interesting difference in the participants’ answers once it came to describing the accidental breakages. Subjects who spoke Spanish or Japanese tended not to remember the name of the person responsible for these breakages. Meanwhile, the English speakers were much more likely to recall who it was.

The reason for this all comes down to the difference in the languages. If a person called John is carrying some eggs, trips and drops them, the description of the event in Japanese or Spanish is usually “the eggs broke”. However, an English speaker would say: “John broke the eggs.” Even though the event was clearly an accident, the English terminology assigns blame to John for what happened, which is why English-speaking subjects could remember his name.

So, it would appear English speakers levy blame at a party, even when there is no blame to assign. In another study, groups were asked to watch footage of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake performing at the Super Bowl in 2004, when Janet suffered the now-infamous wardrobe malfunction that resulted in her breast being exposed.

Both test groups watched the same footage and then read identical reports of the incident. The only difference between the articles was the last line, with one saying “the costume ripped” and the other reading “ripped the costume”. Those who read the latter description were not only more likely to blame Justin Timberlake for the incident, but also to fine him a greater sum for the damage.

According to Fausey’s report, of the 197,745 trials held at London’s Old Baily between 1674 and 1913, the cases where the term “broke it” was used were more likely to end in a guilty verdict than the proceedings where the term “it broke” was used.

True colours

Justice and the assignation of blame is not the only thing affected by your mother tongue. If an English speaker was shown a card coloured a dark navy and an hour later a card coloured a sky blue and was then asked to name the colours, they would answer blue to each. If the shades of blue were very similar, they may also claim both cards showed the same colour if they were shown them separately.

However, a Russian-speaker has two different words to describe blue, so is more likely to recognise the difference between two blue cards shown to them separately. Rather than the part of their brain responsible for sight, it is the part in charge of language that helps them recognise the colour.

Counting is also effected. Some languages do not have words for individual numbers, but instead refer to there being “a few” things or “many” things. As a result, these people are less able to keep a record of exact portions. Then there are the languages that assign gender to nouns, which influences the way those things and places are described.

Again, the ways in which languages vary illustrate just how complicated translating a text or interpreting speech can be. The linguist needs to be able to describe the world in a way that is natural to the person who speaks the target language.

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