Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, May 31, 2018

How the Language We Speak Influences the Way We Think

As users of language, we become masters of slang, idioms, hyperbole, and other techniques using words to convey a message. We teach classes in rhetoric, and study the methods of persuasion. But most of us likely do it all in one language - English. Have you ever wondered whether other languages employ these same techniques? Of course they do, but according to the researcher in this Ted Talk, the language itself might influence thought. From a linguist-enthusiast point of view this is very interesting, but there are also practical implications for our profession.

For example, in English we might say, "I broke the glass." It could be an accident, but that particular construction assigns blame. Another language, like Spanish would likely construct the same idea in another way, "The glass broke." While this is a passive construction, it focuses more on the action of what happened, and leaves out who is to blame for the action. This distinction between passive and active voice is all very familiar to writing lawyers. And we know how to use each to our advantage. 

But does this construction also influence how we think about the person who broke the glass? This researcher says it does. In an English speaking society, we would tend to remember more about who is to blame, and in a Spanish speaking society, we would tend to remember more about what actually happened, than who did it. This has important implications for both eye witness testimony and rendering punishment.

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Yes, Boroditsky's work is interesting, but no, "the glass broke" is not passive.

Posted by: Neal Goldfarb | Jun 8, 2018 5:52:03 PM

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