The Conceptual Logic of the English Language and the Chaotic Freedom of Spanish

      I have a very wacky and politically incorrect theory about languages. I think the language in which you primarily think shapes your mind. And I believe it’s not the same to have a mind that works in English as one that functions in Spanish. What I am suggesting is that the inner workings of the mind have a concrete external representation. They have a flow that orders or perhaps disorders the mind.

I could always swear that the way we drive in Buenos Aires and the way they drive in Washington had something to do with the language we speak. Then, many years ago,  I started reading Steven Pinker‘s book “The Language Instinct” where he totally debunks any such hypothesis. Academically, I would be subscribing to some aspects of what is known as  the Sapir-Whorf theory which was discredited but has now been somewhat reconsidered. But since I’m not planning to write any sort of linguistic treaty for the time being, I’ll go ahead and share what I have experienced.

You are, of course, not supposed to say that any language is better than another, that is politically incorrect, so all languages are equal. But some are more equal than others. Some languages, I think, aid in some aspects over others.

I love both Spanish and English for very different reasons. For example in Spanish you can say “Compré ayer un libro en El Ateneo” but you would never say that in English in the same order. “I bought yesterday a book at El Ateneo” sounds like Spanglish. English has these big chunks of meaning that you don’t separate. In the Latin based Spanish you can separate fragments much more. So English is – in my homemade theory – more logical, stricter. Spanish, on the other hand, is freer but also more chaotic in terms of mental flow.

If an English speaker is listening to someone speak, the minute the person says “I bought..” you expect to hear WHAT was bought, you don’t care where or when. In Spanish it is also more common to name the object after the verb “compré un libro” but this can be altered. O sea, es así pero no es tan así. You can be creative: “En El Ateneo compré ayer un libro” y queda perfecto. An English speaking person would have a fit if you say “At El Ateneo I bought yesterday a book”. Arggghhh!

My conclusion is this: I would rather drive in Washington but I would rather sit and have coffee with a lively group of friends in Buenos Aires where everyone is sitting very closely, talking loudly and making eye and body contact.

I wonder if Marta and Henry would agree.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mariana
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 15:28:24

    You´re not alone in your theory. Lea Boroditsky is an expert in the matter and has multiple examples to show just to what a degree languages shape the way we think. Enjoy!


  2. María Matheu
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 19:41:38

    Wow! Mariana, thanks SO much for this information! I really appreciate it. I was now able to see the speech and found it profoundly illuminating. I will definitely read more of her work. The spacial aspect is there so maybe I am not so off about how we drive. What really amazed me was the difference between “agentive” and “non-agentive” in English and Spanish. Lots of food for thought. Thanks again!


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