Eclectic Grounds

conflicts and conversation

Posts Tagged ‘language

How language shapes our mode of thinking

leave a comment »

At Edge, Lea Boroditzky makes the compelling case that the language we use effectively determines how we perceive the world around us. It’s a fascinating article with many  illuminating examples:

Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. […] Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.

Even what might be deemed frivolous aspects of language can have far-reaching subconscious effects on how we see the world. Take grammatical gender. […] In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures).

Written by henrik

December 27, 2009 at 9:17 am

Only in Tibet…

leave a comment »

On ResetDOC, Michael Dillon comments on violence by the Chinese government against the Uyghur population and points to the underlying structural racism:

If [Uyghurs] don’t speak and read Chinese correctly, then they do not get a job. But they are also excluded for ethnic reasons: Han Chinese prefer to work with Han. Simply, there is a strong anti-Uyghur racism there.

Dillon also comments on the hesitant role of European countries and the US:

The difference is certainly that the Uyghurs are Muslims and Muslims are not very popular in the West right now. Though the main difference is that with Tibet there is an alternative government in exile under the Dalai Lama, so the Chinese have always been able to point at the Dalai Lama and say that he is undermining their control over Tibet. And a lot of Tibetans as we know support the Dalai Lama. That is not the case for Xinjiang. The Uyghurs do look to Central Asian states, such as Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, as a sort of a mother, but there is not an alternative government.

ResetDOC also features two more articles that portray the economic backgrounds of the conflict as well as the role of Turkish language spoken by the Uyghurs.

Written by henrik

August 4, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Politics of citizenship and language: “Allochtoon” becomes “bicultural”

leave a comment »

The Dutch government seems to have adopted a new terminology for ethnic minorities in the Netherlands. The term “bicultural” is now used in official communication rather than “allochtoon” for people of non-Dutch (or rather non-white) ethnicities. In February, the organisation Innovation for Integration will start a media campaign to promote the term.

The word bicultural is a positive counterpart for the word allochtoon,” Yesim Candam, the Turkish founder of IVI, said last year. “We used to say ‘guest labourer’, ‘new Dutch’ or ‘allochtoon’. ‘Bicultural’ is the first term that expresses the fact that two cultures are more than one!”


I am Antoon - I am Allochtoon

"I am Antoon" - "I am Allochtoon"

The term “allochtoon” has become widely used in the Netherlands for people of non-Dutch descent. In popular use, the term is only applied to non-whites, such as people with Turkish or Moroccan ancestry. The Dutch bureau of statistics makes a differentiation between “western” and “non-western” allochtoons in their census categories. While the state agency refers to “allochtoons” only to first- and second-generation immigrants, in everyday usage all non-white people are seen as “allochtoon”.


Historian Ian Buruma described the term “allochtoon” as “an ugly, and relatively new, bureaucratic term for people of alien, but more specifially non-European, origin”. It’s an example of how citizenship in Europe is often defined racially. Like in most European countries, citizenship law in the Netherlands is based on the “jus sanguinis” principle (literally: right of blood”). It confers citizenship rights based on the belonging to the national community of the Dutch, whatever that might look like. 

The introduction of the term “biculturalism” is another step toward recognising that citizenship should be based on political principles rather than ethnic and racial fault lines. 

Source: Crossroads Magazine