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Kind of… sort of… not really

Girl biting her lip and looking to the rightKieran McGovern discusses the question of whether language shapes thought, or whether culture shapes language.

New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world — Wall Street Journal, ‘Lost in Translation’, 30 July 2010.

The always-entertaining Michael Winner recently used his Sunday Times column to describe a visit to a London primary school (Winner’s Dinners: Heading back to school to award an A for effort). His guide was seven-year-old Skye Harris and the two had the following exchange about school dinners:

“Is the food good?” I asked Skye.
“Yes,” she said.
“Good as your mother’s?” I continued
“Not really,” responded Skye

The tentative ‘not really’ is characteristic of the answers I receive from my own seven-year-old daughter. Ask her if she likes this or that and the answer is usually ‘kind of’.

What is it that creates this reticence? Is it the hard-learned lesson that if you say you liked that trip to the museum you’ll be going there every Saturday? Or a reluctance to give a ‘wrong’ answer to an adult?

Or perhaps it’s an early manifestation of something more culturally and linguistically specific:  the famous English reserve.  English speakers generally prefer soft modals to harsh imperatives when expressing opinions: (“Do you want to listen to my new thrash-metal album?” “Um … I think I’d prefer to boil my own head…”). This can cause misunderstandings

In some cultures it is considered rude to give a negative answer – even if it involves sending someone asking for directions up the wrong street. In British English we perhaps do this too subtly. After battling through that awful spider soup we tell our dinner host it was ‘very distinctive’. We then watch in horror as she serves up a second helping.

Is this peculiar to the British? Or is it something inherent to the English language itself? What are your thoughts?

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