Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #043. First published in the St. Cloud Times Feb. 22, 2011

When I was door-knocking last summer in advance of elections, one bit of advice I got I didn’t take: “If you want to know what’s really going on, listen to Glenn Beck.”

I’ll stick with Jon Stewart, thank you — and Minnesota Public Radio and Time and the Times and Star Tribune and PBS “Newshour.”

Recently, though, I got fresh insight into what is really going on from another of my favorite sources, Scientific American.

Lera Boroditsky, who teaches psychology at Stanford and has done research worldwide, confirms the claim made in her article’s title, “How language shapes thought.”

Speakers of different languages don’t just have different words for the same thing; they “end up attending to, remembering and reasoning about the world in different ways because of the languages they speak,” shaping “even the most fundamental dimensions of human experience: space, time, causality and relationships to others.”


As Boroditsky notes, this has important implications for, among other things, politics.

The examples are many and various: how a bilingual person evidences different prejudices, depending on which language a question is asked in; how eyewitness testimony is warped by the degree to which the verb forms of the witness’s language emphasize agency; how schemes of spatial orientation (for a table setting among aboriginals in
northern Australia, “the cup is southeast of the plate”) make it harder or easier to get lost.

What got my attention most was representations of time. “English speakers consider the future to be ‘ahead’ and the past ‘behind.’ ... English speakers unconsciously sway their bodies forward when thinking about the future and back when thinking about the past.” Seems obvious: past behind, future ahead.

But visit the Aymara, who live in the Andes and whose tongue is one of the official languages of Peru and Bolivia, and the “obvious” isn’t obvious. “The past is said to be in front and the future behind,” and “Aymara gesture in front of them when talking about the past and behind them when discussing the future.”

A different view

What might it mean for us to make an Aymaran U-turn? This image is especially appealing to me as I try daily to navigate the potholes — increasing exponentially in both number and size — on Second Avenue in Waite Park. In the scope of public problems this isn’t major — though $100 for a wheel alignment doesn’t seem exactly minor. But how do we think about it and the myriad other predicaments we’re in? Which way are we facing?

If the future is ahead and the past behind, things look bleak. We’re stuck in where we are now, and we think all the past has done is get us into this fix. Cut, cut, cut.

And it’s trickle-down cutting: the feds will send $5.5 billion less to Minnesota, the Legislature wants to slash millions from Local Government Aid and cities (including Waite Park) are having to increase property taxes — the most regressive of all — and fees (like water and sewer) just to maintain basic services.

If, like the Aymara, we see the past in front, we see a time before Tim Pawlenty and Ronald Reagan hoodwinked us into thinking government is the problem, a time when we Minnesotans — indeed, we Americans — thought of ourselves as depending on one another, responsible for one another, believing that infrastructure, such as roads, and education and social services are what we want and are willing to pay for, not a penalty exacted from us as we kick and scream about no new taxes.

Not so long ago, CEOs made 20 times what their employees did, not 400 times. Not so long ago the wealthiest 10 percent of Minnesotans paid the same percentage of their income in state and local taxes as the rest of us, not less. Plain old English can serve for this change: outrageous.

The Aymaran U-turn points us back to the future, toward a time when Minnesota was famous as the state that worked. And we also have a word for this in plain old English — indeed, as Gov. Mark Dayton is reminding us, plain old Minnesotan: fairness.