Now Karening

5 Jul

Language affects the way we think. We often are oblivious to this. But whether it’s the marketing speak of the New! Fresh! Free! or the insidious implications of the imagery journalists invoke to manipulate your emotions, the finely tuned pathos of political speeches, or the utterances of the small, simple, almost impossible words like “I love you” or “sorry”, words affect us every day.

Deeper than that, though, the language we speak – the one we speak inside our heads, our mother tongue – affects the way we think. The way we are. When we’re born, we have the capacity to learn any language. As complicated as my tongue and brain might find Cantonese now, it would have absorbed it spongily as a child. We learn how language works in the first three years of our lives. From there on in, it’s mostly vocabulary.

A beautiful example of this is a construct of Xhosa, which is echoed in a lot of colloquial British, of defining things as belonging to people, or families. Nkuli wam. Our Jason. It’s a warm, friendly, embracing way of thinking.

But most fascinating, most mind-bending, is a Native American dialect which contains no nouns. Everything that we would think of as a noun, they only have verb forms for. So the tree is not “a tree” it is “treeing”. It is constantly in the process of being. I am not Karen, I am Karening. The freedom that this allows people in their thinking is quite staggering. Nothing is finite. Nothing is static. Everything is happening, all the time. With that as your starting point, anything is possible.

Without the formal constraints of nouns, we lose the formal constraints of thinking. If something is ongoing, moving, happening, it is constantly possible to change it, alter it, because we know that it will be something different now. And now. And now. This is the psychology of verbs, a mind-set in which everything is interacting, everything is happening, mellifluously, now.

So that’s my challenge. To constantly consider myself a work in progress.


6 Responses to “Now Karening”

  1. Mvelase Peppetta July 5, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    Oh my, what an awesome blog!

    But then again you know I’m a mini-wordnerd-in-training, though this goes so much further than that.

    Maybe slightly off-topic, but personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the “psychology” of the Xhosa suffix “-kazi”, which feminizes, but also signifies something is “bigger” or “greater”.

    • karenjeynes July 5, 2011 at 10:14 pm #

      I love wordnerds. And yes – there’s a lot about Xhosa which fascinates, linguistically. Of course, there’s also the French psychology of gender-ising everything. Did you know that vagina is masculine?

  2. Stan July 6, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Everything is in constant flux, but for practical reasons we nounify a lot of what we see and sense! Your post reminds me of something I heard about from Daniel Everett: what the Piraha call “xibipiio”, which signifies something going in and out of the boundaries of experience. We use the same concept when we play peek-a-boo with children, but we didn’t codify it in language to the extent the Piraha did.

  3. Lisa August 3, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Thank you for a wonderful blog! On the topic of shifting into verb-language, have you come across E-prime? I can’t remember who told me about it, but whenever I bristle at a passive voice, I try remind myself to use it – blogged about it here a while ago, though I’m sure there’s more online –


  1. Slegs Only | That Word Site - December 31, 2012

    […] told us that we are more rational if we make decisions in a language that isn’t our mother tongue. I’ve written before about languages which see the world without nouns, and how that can alter one’s view of life. And […]

  2. Slegs Only | - November 5, 2013

    […] told us that we are more rational if we make decisions in a language that isn’t our mother tongue. I’ve written before about languages which see the world without nouns, and how that can alter one’s view of life. And […]

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