Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

As you may have guessed from the Photoblog in the sidebar, one of my (non-language related) hobbies is photography. Just today, I was reading an article on photographic composition, when a passage jumped out at me:

Counter culture placement of the subject is another way of increasing tension in a photo. In western culture, movement is generally left to right. That’s how you’re reading this page. If the movement in the scene is from right to left (even though it’s moving toward the center), it can create negative tension for western viewers.

I may be crazy (or just obsessed), but I’m seeing some hinting at Linguistic Relativity (the idea that your language affects your thought, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) in that line of reasoning. He seems to be imply that the direction of the writing system you use (and thus, the language you speak) affects your processing of images and your aesthetic sense. Given, it’s one of the more concrete and common-sense arguments I’ve heard for language affecting perception, but I’m still slightly skeptical. This just begs for some sort of study.

If Mr. Altengarten’s assertion is true, then an Arabic or Hebrew speaker (who read from right to left) might not find an image with left-to-right movement as appealing as a English speaker would. This raises a few term-paper worthy questions for me. Do Arabic or Hebrew speaking composition teachers give their students the opposite advice? Is this tendency mirrored in art in Right-to-left cultures? How would such images be seen by a bilingual speaker raised speaking (and reading) both Arabic (Right-to-left) and Farsi (Left-to-right)? What about to illiterate speakers of any language?

Given, evaluating this would be very subjective (“Which of these pictures is prettier?”), but I suspect that by asking enough people using similar enough photographs (differing only in composition), the presence or absence of a pattern might be detected.

So, if you’ve got lots of free time (and easy access to native speakers of both sorts of languages), I’d be fascinated to see such a study carried out on this. Although I can’t offer funding, advice, help, or pictures, rest assured that, if the study finds anything cool, you would be my personal hero for at least an hour. That’s gotta be worth something, right?


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