Lost in Translation – The Power of Language in Pop Culture

I read this ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE article on the power of language.  As a historian in training you learn that history is, in fact, subjective – not objective – simply due to the power of words.  Events can be described any number of ways and the words chosen to describe these events have connotations.  Which is why many of us abhor textbooks.

Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology at Stanford and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, argues that language is crucial in determining causality:

“In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.” Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.”

Here’s a segment from Boroditsky’s essay in the Wall Street Journal on the cultural influence of language.  Although most of the essay is on the use of language by different cultures, here Boroditsky explains the pop cultural significance of language using the example of Janet Jackson’s and Justin Timberlake’s controversial Superbowl performance in 2004.

In another study, English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase “ripped the costume” while the other said “the costume ripped.” Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read “ripped the costume” blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.

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