Our language and culture come to us down through the generations. These things we learn at home affect the way we describe the world, and the way we see it: our personal gestalt. I was studying my fourth language before I learned that Noam Chomsky, a Czech like me, was one of the foremost linguists of his generation. Coincidence? My mom’s mom grew up speaking French and then later taught French. My wife, Ann’s dad’s (back left) parents immigrated from Norway and hearing their native language affected him for the rest of his life.
There is a prominent body of research behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. demonstrating that our perception of the world, our behaviors and our communication patterns are tied to the specific language we learn at home and in our communities. People from more homogeneous communities and from larger families tend to demonstrate this most clearly, but the phenomenon appears to be very broadly applicable if not universal.
The hypothesis emerged as early as the 19th century. Wilhelm von Humboldt described language as the symbolic expression of “the spirit of a nation.” The idea was further elaborated in the early 20th century, in the school of American Anthropology headed by Franz Boas and Edward Sapir. Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf took the research much further and published observations of differences in human cognition and behavior with corresponding linguistic markers.
Linguistic relativity and gestalt theories would lead us to intuitively presume that the influences of parents on their children during the formative years create perceptual and symbolic reasoning patterns that may stay with people throughout their lives. The environmental aspects of inherited learning are compounded by non-environmental factors that are not fully explained by biology. The amazing Twin Family Studies demonstrates remarkable similarities in language, perception and communication among twins separated at birth, many of whom had no interaction until being reunited as adults. This applies to both identical or monozygotic (MZ) and fraternal or dizygotic (DZ) twins. How many pictures have you seen of twins who have significantly shared interests and talents?
You can often read a person through their facial expressions, and tell about what’s going on inside their heads. Parents and children, brothers and sisters, especially twins exhibit remarkable similarities. Empirical observations are corroborated by formal studies. An example is found in the results of one study of twins: “Twin pairs were significantly correlated for facial expressions of general positive emotions, happiness, surprise and anger, but not for general negative emotions, sadness, or disgust or average emotional intensity. MZ pairs (n=18) were more correlated than DZ pairs (n=10) for most but not all emotional expressions.” Kendler KS, Halberstadt LJ, Butera F, Myers J, Bouchard T, Ekman P. Department of Psychiatry, Medical College of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA.
In my observations of my own substantial family and the families around me, including my children’s partner’s families, the inherited linguistic, behavioral and cognitive traits are strong and deep. Therefor I return to one of my core propositions, learning about those who have gone before often tells us much about ourselves. The picture above shows my daughter Eliza as a baby in her great-grandmother’s lap. Here is a picture of Eliza as a bride.