I SETTLED DOWN THE OTHER NIGHT to enjoy a Stephen Fry documentary on the origins of language. I have no pretentions of intellectualism, and as a rule my viewing matter consists of explosions and body counts. However, for Stephen Fry I make exceptions.
For those of you not in the know, Stephen Fry is a ridiculously intelligent comedian/actor who possesses the ability to play with English in much the same way as Tiger Woods moves a golf ball around a course. Should you require some supporting evidence of my opinion then look no further than episodes of the British quiz show QI on YouTube.
Mr Fry slips easily between English, Greek, Latin and if necessary can even demonstrate verbal dexterity in French, German and Spanish.
Back in my school days, such abilities would not have endeared him to my classmates who would have undoubtedly taken it upon themselves to demonstrate their own ideas of dexterity, behind the gym and with both left and right hooks. Stephen Fry though has become one of Britain’s most respected and loved television presenters as his passion for language is infectious. In short, he appears to be making the impossible, possible and turning many British watchers onto the idea that intelligence is cool. This is no mean feat in a country where one professional footballer suffered ridicule and was eventually forced out of the team for his open love of reading.
So it was then that I found myself with a large cup of coffee, watching the opening credits of ‘Planet Word’. In the documentary, Stephen Fry, a man who never uses one word when fifteen multi-syllable words will suffice, travels the world examining the development of language, from the first cave scratchings all the way through to the invention of printing and from the earliest recorded joke (Assyrian, and really not funny) through to the oddity which is British regional accents.
Even when the topic itself is a bit dry (fortunately not in this case) I find a presenter who displays a clear passion for his or her subject rather hypnotic. Stephen Fry’s love of all things wordy is not in doubt and so I watched avidly. My already high level of attention then peaked as he approached the subject of how the way we speak may well have an effect on the way we see things and process information in everyday life.
His first example used the rather mundane subject of bridges. With the exception of some members of the global engineering community, bridges will rarely provoke an ‘Aha moment’. However in this case, the example was well chosen. The Spanish for bridge is ‘puente’ and in grammar is a masculine word. In German, ‘Brüke’, is feminine.
Germans on the other hand used ‘beautiful’, ‘fragile’ and ‘elegant’ to describe the very same bridges.
This suggests that the way we speak does indeed effect the way we think. In Korean, you cannot throw ‘hello’ around without first thinking about who you are speaking to. The word hello will change depending on the age and/or hierarchical status of your conversation partner. Likewise Japanese people must take a minute before deciding which form of ‘I’ would be suitable. Both of these cultures display high power-distance relationships. The question must be asked, therefore, does the language reflect the thinking or impact it?
A clearer example of linguistic differences affecting how information is processed is in a comparison between native English and native Chinese speakers. When describing periods of time, Mandarin speakers are ‘vertical’. The past becomes ‘up’ and the future is ‘down’.
When describing periods of time, Mandarin speakers are ‘vertical’. The past becomes ‘up’ and the future is ‘down’.
The most interesting study of the connection between word choice and thought process showed how, depending on our native languages, we have a tendency to add information to that which we receive in order to make it more ‘palatable’ to our mental process. Some languages such as English, Russian and Chinese use verbs which in themselves tell the listener how an action is performed. Languages such as French, Spanish and Hebrew use simpler verbs and then team those words with adverbs in order to give detail. For example, ‘He raced’ as opposed to ‘he ran quickly’.
Professor Dan Slobin of the University of California at Berkeley asked a group of native English and native Spanish speakers to read a passage from a book. The English speakers were given a direct English translation whilst the Spanish speakers read the original Spanish.
The English translated to, “He picked up his bags and started to walk through the mud and stones of a path that led to the town. He walked for more than ten minutes, grateful that it was not raining, because it was only with difficulty that he was able to advance along the path with his heavy suitcases, and he realised that the rain would have converted it in a few seconds into an impassable mud-hole.”
Afterwards, Slobin asked the volunteers to describe the way the character in the book moved. The English speakers reported rich mental imagery for the way the character “stumbled” and “trudged” into town.
English speakers reported rich mental imagery for the way the character “stumbled” and “trudged” into town. Very few of the Spanish speakers, from Mexico, Chile and Spain, did so.
The interesting, and slightly worrying, point here is that the English speakers, when asked to describe the man’s movements, invented a lot of their own descriptive ideas, in much the same way that eye-witnesses to crimes often describe scenes in a very different way to each other.
NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) features regularly in ClarkMorgan’s Communication Fundamentals training. Carefully choosing just the right words to influence your listeners can be the difference between a huge contract and a meeting that stalls. From what Stephen Fry shows us and a great many other articles on the internet, we can see that, when choosing our phraseology, we have to consider not what sounds right to us, but what will sound familiar to our audience.
Having a huge vocabulary does not make you a great communicator. Good communication can be judged by the response which you receive. Thus, a keen understanding of how your audience processes information will go a long way towards getting the reaction that you want from listeners.