That’s a literal word-for-word translation of what sounds like yoda-speak, but is actually German: Why are Germans so law-abiding? Because the German language is so pedantic. Warum sind deutscher so gesetztreu? Weil deutsch so pedantisch ist.
I’ve long nursed the idea that the language we speak may influence the way we are. Ever since learning German, a language with well defined rules and a pedantic grammar, at least when compared to my mother tongue, English, I began to compare the strict ideas of the language with the German people and culture and wonder if there was some sort of connection. The German language, fraught with instructions for how to organize each word in a sentence and what endings to attach to them in a host of different situations could easily be explained by the rule following nature of the people who speak it. If that’s not true, I reasoned, then it could just as likely be the other way around—an organized and law-abiding people could have evolved and selected characteristics of their spoken language to fit their lifestyles.
Just as when I was just starting college and read a survey of philosophy and discovered all those clever, barely formed, ideas rolling around in my head weren’t so original after all. (Was this a compliment or an insult to my ego, I wondered? Am I unable to come up with an original idea, or am I on par with Hume for contemplating similar ideas all on my own? With the benefit of hindsight, I think the former is much more likely to be true….) Here again, the idea is not new at all, and indeed, it’s quite a popular one: the concept was popularized by Benjamin Whorf and goes under the name Whorfian Hypothesis, or more explanatorily, Linguistic Determinism and was “a staple of courses on language through the early 1970s” according to Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought.
You’ve all heard a popular example of this idea in the old saw that Eskimos have over 40, or was it thousands (!),of words for snow. Of course, a culture so surrounded by the stuff would somehow gain a greater understanding of the subtle details, and naturally, their language would reflect this. Alas, this urban legend has long been debunked (which is to say nothing about the number of people who may still believe it to be true). English, for example, actually has dozens of words for snow: sleet, slush, powder flurries, hardpack, and sometimes, when there’s too much of it in your driveway, white shit, to name a few.
The problem with my thinly proved claim about the German language, that like the people, it has less flexibility than other languages is that it’s really only an observation thanks to my difficulty learning the language’s many rules. Where German has some strict requirements for where the verbs go in a sentence, the rest of the words can float around the sentence in a way that would make an English speaking poet green with envy. Mess around with English word order and meaning is changed dramatically. Dog bites man vs. man bites dog is the classic example. In German you can move things willy nilly achieving emphasis without resorting to typography or emoticons : – o (That would be Den Mann bißt der Hund vs. Der Man bißt den Hund.) Indeed, in many languages that require declension which signifies by prefixes or suffixes (or something else) which word is the subject or object, for example, instead of relying on strict word order as English does.
The German language is likely only pedantic from the foreign language student’s point of view. If it really were, would it be fault of the culture? Or did it shape the culture? The question is more challenging to answer, since even in African countries where German was exported, the German culture was exported along with it, which doesn’t necessarily imply a causal link.
But I’m not alone in guessing at this link between language and culture. In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell gives us an explanation of why Chinese speakers might be better at math, claiming it has something to do with the headstart children are given because of the logical naming of numbers. In English, Russian, French, German, and others, numbers are pretty messed up. Eleven, twelve, thirteen…then more logically, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen..which is kind of like 7 + 10, 8 + 10, 9 + 10. Of course, then we get to twenty, twenty-one, and it’s 20 + 1, 20 + 2. French is notorious for requiring arithmetic just to count with numbers such as 4 times 20 plus 2 for 82. Meanwhile, Chinese, Gladwell tells us, is pleasantly logical 1, 2, 3,…10, 1 x 10 + 1, 1 x 10 + 2, 2 x 10 + 3… and so forth. Gladwell points to research that Chinese boys and girls actually learn to count to much higher numbers much sooner than their English speaking counterparts.
I read this with glee; more evidence for Linguistic Determinism I thought. Not sure where my brain checked out though. This is, at best, a correlation for which there may be other causal relationships. Under this argument, we can easily presume that, while Chinese mathematicians are happy, Chinese poets are at least as envious of Germans as the English ones are, they have to learn over 10,000 symbols before they can even get started.
All of this assumes that language is the tool with which our brain thinks. It certainly feels that way. Language is, intuitively, our first clue to what we’re thinking about. I wonder what Steven Pinker would say to Gladwell about the Chinese math claim (he certainly isn’t impressed with Mr. Gladwell’s other claims). In Pinker’s book The Stuff of Thought he cites research by Dahaene and Spelke on bi-lingual speakers being asked to do math problems in their different tongues. While the participants do resort to their preferred language to do calculations, likely due to the mnemonics they’ve learned to perform them, (six times six equals thirty-six, six times seven equals forty-two…) there was no slowdown regardless of which language the question was asked in to estimate results. Estimating is, the kind of built-in math that our brains are capable of. Another study even showed subjects with damaged brains who could no longer speak or understand sentences, and yet were still able to compute math phrases “such as 50 – [(4 + 7) x 4].”
It’s time I laid my stereotypes about Germans not at the feet of language, but at my own laziness. Linguistic Determinism is simply incapable explaining the evidence of language use and acquisition, even if it does make for compelling conversation and fascinating discussions with fellow travelers.