Opinion: Does language influence behavior?

Language is logical, or at least it used to be. In elementary school, I was taught that a pronoun is a word that refers to a participant in a discourse (like “I” or “you”) or to something mentioned elsewhere (like “she,” “it,” or “they”). I was also taught that the pronoun should agree with the noun that it represents. That made sense. It was logical.


The following sentence is now accepted in schools and in printed media, like newspapers, magazines, and books. “If a student wants to do well, they should study.” That sentence is grammatically incorrect. The pronoun “they” (which is plural) does not “agree” with the noun (“student,” which is singular). Here is an easy correction: “If students want to do well, they should study.” Now, the noun (students) and pronoun (they) are both plural. And the verb (wants, which is third person, singular) has also been changed (want, which is third person, plural) so that everything in the sentence is in agreement. Logical.


Foreign language


I knew this principle of grammar before I went to high school. I started ninth grade at a Catholic military academy where academic subjects were taught by Jesuit priests, and “military science” was the province of the U.S. Army. The ROTC instructors were the nice guys; I can’t say the same for most of the priests. Marching and taking M1 rifles apart and putting them back together was a pleasant break from the Latin classes, which were required.


The first semester, when we students learned the basics of grammar and vocabulary, was interesting. Reading and translating Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars or Cicero’s proclamation (O tempore. O mores. — Oh, what times! Oh, what customs!) was pure torture.


However, learning a foreign (although “dead”) language helped me understand the logic of language. When I got to college, that background served me well. I registered for classes in Spanish and had an easy time of synthesizing English, Latin, and Spanish. Now, that knowledge, especially in regard to the use of pronouns, seems to be obsolete and politically incorrect.


Today, when people identify themselves on email or when attending a Zoom conference, they are expected to state their “pronoun preference.” I suppose that’s necessary because we politically-correct Americans recognize a variety of gender lifestyles. Personally, I always root for the underdog, so I would choose little-used pronouns like yonder, whosoever, and naught.


Parts of speech


I don’t know if parts of speech are taught anymore. It seems as though everyone says “like I said.” Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, that construction was incorrect. The logic was: “I said” is a clause (not a phrase) and must therefore be introduced by an adverb (making it an adverbial clause), not a preposition (making it an incorrect prepositional phrase). Consequently, the expression should be “as I said.” But many people maintain that “usage” determines the correctness of language. Maybe.


Matt Amodio, the current 30-game champion (as of this writing) on Jeopardy who has won more than a million dollars, begins every response with “What is….” I cringe when he says, “What is Eleanor of Aquitaine?” That was the correct question to the Jeopardy answer: “She was married to King Louis VII of France and, later, to King Henry II of England.” But, that doesn’t make Matt’s response logical. I’d bet the farm that Mr. Amodio knows that. It’s likely that he always begins his question the same way so that he can concentrate on remembering the required fact.


Likewise, both “I” and “me” are pronouns. However, the correct use of the pronouns is dependent on “case.” “I” is nominative case and is used as the subject of a sentence. “Me” is objective case and is used as either a direct or indirect object.


How often have you heard something similar to this: “Me and my friend are going to the store.” This incorrect construction is so common that I’ve heard it used by college professors. Because “me” is objective case, it cannot be used as the subject of a sentence. It isn’t logical. Neither is saying “between you and I.” In this case, “between” is a preposition, and prepositions take an object. “I” is nominative case; “me” is objective case. So, the correct construction is “between you and me.”


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis


Nearly a hundred years ago, anthropologist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf studied languages around the world. They developed the linguistic theory that the structure of language determines the way in which people form conceptions of the world. About halfway through the 20th century, a “weak hypothesis” became popular. That theory substitutes the word “influences” for “determines.”


A corollary to either version is that people’s experience affects the content of their language. For example, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish languages each have as many as 300 words for snow. In Scotland, academics have counted 421 words for snow and ice-related terms. By contrast, Hawaiian has only one word, hua, and it was coupled with “kea,” a reference to “white mountain” (the top of which was covered with snow) before global communications made nearly everyone aware of variations in weather conditions.


Thought and behavior


If it is true that language influences thought, then when language becomes illogical, so do our thoughts. And, it is another corollary that our thoughts influence our actions. That is the basis of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is widely used among modern counselors and therapists.


So, my concern in the context of this essay is this: As our language becomes less and less logical, might it not be possible that our behaviors are similarly affected. How else can we explain a person or people randomly shooting at cars on Southern California highways, a passenger starting a fight in an airplane at 40,000 feet, or potential victims refusing to get vaccinated against a pandemic disease?


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Jim Glynn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.