Saying One Thing, Meaning Another

(Published in The Express Tribune, July 18, 2011)

Lera Boroditsky, in her essay on How Language Shapes Thought, draws on the incident where Dick Cheney accidentally shot Harry Whittington. This event can be described simply as “Cheney shot Whittington”. We can also say “Whittington got shot by Cheney” putting the focus on Whittington getting shot rather than on Cheney shooting him.

The choice of words can make a significant difference on how incidences are interpreted or referenced. Cheney himself described the event as: “Ultimately I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry”, distancing himself considerably from the actual shooting. President George Bush’s version of the same incident was “he heard a bird flush, and he turned and pulled the trigger and saw his friend get wounded”, which, Boroditsky points out “was an even more masterful exculpation, transforming Cheney from agent to mere witness in less than a sentence”.

As another example, consider how various cultures and languages describe family relationships. Urdu, has very distinct terms defining the various uncles found in the extended family while in the English language, the same word ie uncle, can refer to a father’s brother, mother’s brother, father’s sister’s husband or a mother’s sister’s husband. In fact, the Urdu language goes even further to distinguish uncles elder and younger to one’s father and so forth. Recognising each distinct relationship results in appropriate value being assigned to existing family members or new entrants into the folds, such as “Samdhis”, a newly formed relation between a married couple’s fathers.

Words often influence not only culture but also decisions and as one would expect, politicians often have greater use for it. Frank Luntz, author of New York Times best seller “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” and the man responsible for replacing “global warming” with “climate change” and adviser to various US presidents has plenty of authority on the use of words. For example the elimination of “estate tax” which is the tax levied on the net value of the estate of a deceased person, did not receive the desired response. This was because the public “wouldn’t support it because the word “estate” sounds like wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it’s not an estate tax; it’s a death tax, because you’re taxed at death. And suddenly something that isn’t viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people”, claims Luntz. Simply changing the language helped influence the perception of the public.

Language is a primary faculty of the human brain. Choosing the right words deserves far more credit in shaping and influencing public than one may initially think.