Article Review: Guy Deutscher's Does Your Mother Tongue Shape How You Think?

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In the article “Does your mother tongue shape how you think” Guy Deutscher argues that our mother tongue does indeed shape our experiences of the world. However, it does not do so as Benjamin Lee Whorf’s theory suggests but rather because of what our mother tongue habitually obliges us to think.

Guy Deutscher takes a claim made by Benjamin Lee Whorf, a chemical engineer, who essentially stated that our native language constrains our mind and we are unable to grasp concepts that are not given words to in our language. He said that when a language does not have a particular word for a concept, the concept itself cannot be understood by the speaker. Deutscher argues that Whorf did not have any evidence to substantiate this theory and that his claim is wrong on many levels. He gives an example that although there isn’t an English word for Schadenfreude in German; it does not mean that an English speaker is unable to comprehend the concept of pleasure in someone else’s misery. Whorf’s theory was “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.” Yet, due to the lack of evidence to back up his claim the theory crash landed. This is where Deutscher presents his argument that our mother tongue can influence and affect what it habitually obliges us to think about. He does so by presenting differences from language to language and explains the many tests that were conducted in recent years to back up his theory.[i]

Duetscher considers many different languages and compares the differences; such as in English we don’t have to say the gender of the person we are speaking about but in French and German we would be compelled to inform the listeners of the gender. However, in English we must speak of the timing of the event such as past, present or future but in Chinese there is one verb that represents the concept of time. When a...
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