Do Languages ‘Think’ Alike?

SCIENCE

Very different languages seem to organize the world in surprisingly similar ways—scientists say the ways humans describe nature transcends culture and geography. (Quartz)

How well do you know your own language? Play Word-O-Rama to find out!

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

Discussion Ideas

  • The Quartz video investigates polysemous words in different languages. What are polysemous words?
    • Polysemous words have multiple meanings that are loosely related by meaning or significance. The word “man,” for example, is a polyseme that means the human species (mankind), as well as a male member of that species (man not woman), as well as an adult male member of that species (man not boy).
      • Polysemes are different from homonyms. Homonyms are also words that have different meanings, but the meanings are usually unrelated to each other. The word “second,” for example, can mean a fraction of time (you’ll read this in a few seconds) or number two in a series (second place).

 

  • Can you think of any polysemes?
    • bank: A bank is a financial institution, and also the business that the institution supports. (I bank at the bank.)
    • ship: A ship is a vessel for transporting goods, and also the means of transportation itself. (Many ships make up the shipping industry.)
    • milk: Milk is:
      • a) the fluid that nourishes young mammals (whale milk is as thick as cottage cheese!)
      • b) the process that describes obtaining that fluid (a dairy has hundreds of milking machines)
      • and c) the exploitation of a sure set of resources (I’m milking this polyseme for everything it’s worth).

 

  • Take a look at the diagram above. It lists keywords (big circles) and words that are polysemes of that keyword (little circles) in more than one language. What are some polysemes that refer one natural concept to another?
    • earth/soil and ground
    • water and tide
    • river and flood
    • lake and pond
    • mountain and volcano
    • stone and gem
    • wind and storm
    • sky and space
    • sun and daytime
    • fire and heat

 

  • Take another look at the polysemy data above. What are some polysemes that refer a natural concept to a spiritual or human-centered one?
    • fire and passion
    • earth/soil and country
    • stone and tombstone
    • wind and mood
    • star and asterisk

 

  • What polysemous data most intrigue you? Are there any connections that you hadn’t thought of before?
    • Sky and heaven? Why do you think diverse cultures associate our upper atmosphere with a place of perfect serenity?
    • Star and luck? Why do you think diverse cultures associate a faraway heavenly body with pure chance?
    • Water and interest on money? (I love this one.) Why do you think diverse cultures associate a vital nutrient with profit?

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Quartz: Scientists say the ways humans describe nature transcends culture and geography

Nat Geo: Word-o-Rama: Human Geography

(extra credit!) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: On the universal structure of human lexical semantics

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