How we think about problems depends in part of how we are taught to do so. And that education is seeped in our culture and language. Metaphors, mnemonics, analogies, riddles, word choice for explanations are tightly interwoven into our language. Just like it was probably impossible for Romans to invent calculus given their numeral system, it is difficult to think clearly about some problems in some languages. I’ve learned advanced physics and mathematics in English and find it very difficult to express thoughts in those domains in Russian (my native language). But when I first came to New York, I marveled at how poor my cohorts’ geometry proofs were — their presentations took a lot of space and too many steps to achieve what I was taught to do in minimal configuration. I was taught to jump and bound from concept to concept (in geometry), while the students in America were taught to crawl through ideas. I found that maddening! But it was a different math language, and as such it allowed for a different set of affordances…
It is difficult to easily show the differences in thought process that language makes in this short blog. But here’s a bit on difference in thoughts that culture and background knowledge makes — these are analogies taken from high school students’ writing. Notice the strong anchor of time and place. Enjoy!
- Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.
- His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.
- He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a
guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.
- She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.
- She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
- Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
- He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.
- The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.
- The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.
- McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.
- From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, unreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.
- Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
- The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
- Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.
- They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.
- John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
- He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.
- Even in his last years, Grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.
- Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.
- The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.
- The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.
- He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.
- The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
- It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.
- He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.
- Her eyes were like limpid pools, only they had forgotten to put in any pH cleanser.
PS: I’ve been collecting these types of analogies for years. Unfortunately, I no longer have the reference for the one above.