Friday, September 03, 2010

How language shapes our thinking

Just after drafting Monday's post  on how cultural setting shapes our visual cognition,  I read an excellent article by Guy Deutscher in the Sunday NYTimes Magazine, on how language shapes our thinking.  He starts by reviewing the story of the rise and fall of "the Whorfian hypothesis,"  which maintained that if a language had no term for a concept (such as the future), then the speaker of that language would not be able to grasp the concept in the sense that we can.  Hard data crashed the hypothesis, and the counter reaction was so severe that for many years no limits of language on basic cognition have been admitted.  How it turns out that the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater. Some clips from the article, starting with some fact about differences between languages pointed out 50 years ago by linguist Roman Jakobson:
Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey...if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love...When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant.

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it...Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life?

The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us...egocentric coordinates...depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn... a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all...Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.”...languages that rely primarily on geographical coordinates are scattered around the world, from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali.

How does this work? The convention of communicating with geographic coordinates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives..This habit of constant awareness to the geographic direction is inculcated almost from infancy...When Guugu Yimithirr speakers were asked how they knew where north is, they couldn’t explain it any more than you can explain how you know where “behind” is.

Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.


  1. Anonymous7:57 AM

    New Scientist has just posted a feature article looking at the evolutionary implications of the way language influences cognition. Well worth a read:

  2. Anonymous11:00 AM

    Chinese has no verb tense. Try explaining any time travel movie to a native Chinese speaker (who learned English as an adult). It's near impossible.