Monday, September 28, 2009

The stories we tell shift with the language we speak

When I was a kid, my cousins had a game that intrigued me. We never played, but it became associated in my head with a spy-mystery who-dunnit where "The Brain" was actually a villain behind a vast bank of consoles and controls which he used to control the world. The metaphor stuck.

I have long been fascinated by how people perceive and process the world. What does that console look like for them? Do other people have the same type of running monologue in their heads - with the occasional conversation run-through every way possible - that I do? What's the impact of differences in culture, background, disabilities/ abilities? I think this is a large part of the appeal that Oliver Sack's works hold for me.

My brother is colorblind, with a red-green deficiency. To him, the lawn is orange. How does that impact his appreciation for stories where color plays a key role? Take that to an even higher level for my Uncle, who sees in black, white, and shades of grey. I remember how frustrated he got playing Trivial Pursuit, because he never knew which category he had landed on. In Island of the Colorblind , Sacks describes a society where color does not play a role (or just a very minor one). He also tells of colorblind artists who paint with such subtle shifts in greyscale that color-sighted people cannot distinguish the patterns that my Uncle, for example, would.

I just read an article by Lera Boroditsky, titled "How does our Language Shape the Way We Think?". Fascinating! She details experiments that compare and contrast perceptions between cultures with very different language structures. Like considering spatial orientation/ reference in English, where the reference point is our body, to a tribe where the reference point is the compass. Because their language is so tied to compass directions, they always know which way they face. Or how visual cues relate to perception of time in English, where time is tied to distance, vs Greek, where time is volume-related. Very cool. How does this impact how we tell stories? How and what we choose to mashup in online storytelling? Would love to hear folk-tales from the tribe that points to the compass.

Creoles themselves, as a language mashup, must get interesting. I'll have to dig more to see if they tend to stick to the same fundamentals, make new rules, or pick and choose from the source languages. Imagine being part of the emergence of a Creole tongue that not only is a new way of expressing yourself - but could be a total right turn in how you perceive the world, as well.

What have I read in Haitian Creole, in French, in translation that did not take into account these differences? Has it impacted my experience of the story?

Now I have to learn a lot more languages. Or at least understand how their rules are built to make sure I get these subtleties.