Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Senior Thesis Concept: Linguistic Relativity

I first started studying a foreign language my freshman year of high school. I quickly realized I had a passion for studying languages, and caught on to French quite easily. Some of my classmates weren't so lucky, and I remember my teacher, Mme. (affectionately pronounced "maymay") telling them, "language isn't some code, where each word has an exact counterpart. You have to begin by getting to know the culture, the people, the history." This really struck me, and obviously stuck with me, because it's so true. Many times I've keyed a word into a translator and gotten back a phrase as its foreign language counterpart. Things do not translate word for word - every culture and every language gives words their own meaning and has a different set of phrases than my own English. And I find all of this so incredibly interesting.
Last summer, before senior year started, I was doing an internship at Fossil. My roommate and I out there in Dallas were already totally stressed out about our senior thesis. Mind you, we hadn't yet started school or gotten any direction as to what our senior thesis should be. But, we were sick with worry about finding a concept and getting started on ideation sketches. We spent our free time reading articles, learning about what was happening in the fashion industry at the time, soaking up information about anything and everything that could possibly be turned into inspiration for our collections. We spent our lunch hours laying out ideas, discussing them until we were sick of them, desperately searching for that one great idea in a pile of research.
One day in August I happened upon my idea via the New York Times. I'll have to send Guy Deutscher a thank you letter, because without his intriguing article, I may never have stumbled upon this concept.
The idea is simple: the language you speak affects the way you think. Grammatical structures, noun gender, and vocabulary all play a major role in the way you view or remember events. I would highly recommend browsing the NYT article, here.
Since reading that article, I've read many, many more. Apparently some of this research goes back up to 100 years ago. A man named Benjamin Lee Whorf wrote a book called "Language, Thought, and Reality," which studied linguistic relativity, specifically dealing with Native American languages. He had a harsher view on the subject, theorizing that the structure of a language actually affects cognition. For example, if the language in question did not have a word for "empty," than the speaker would not be able to understand the concept of a container not having any contents. I certainly don't agree with his theory, but I was interested that this research went back so far.
I've talked to speakers of a variety of languages, and I've learned a lot. I'll explain more about how this pertains to fashion design when I start posting my mood board, sketches, and final designs over the next week or so. But I find it all terribly interesting, and I'm glad for the opportunity to study language further, since I hadn't had much time for it once I entered college. So, more to come soon as I start posting how I turned this into a collection of clothing!

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