For example, how do we think about time? The word "time" is the most frequent noun in the English language. Time is ubiquitous yet ephemeral. It forms the very fabric of our experience, and yet it is unperceivable: we cannot see, touch, or smell time. How do our minds create this fundamental aspect of experience?
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Dispatches on the Future of Science Edited By Max Brockman Humans communicate with one another using a dazzling array of languages, each differing from the next in innumerable ways. Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives?
Do people who speak different languages think differently simply because they speak different languages? Does learning new languages change the way you think? Do polyglots think differently when speaking different languages?
These questions touch on nearly all of the major controversies in the study of mind. They have engaged scores of philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists, and they have important implications for politics, law, and religion. Yet despite nearly constant attention and debate, very little empirical work was done on these questions until recently. For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong.
What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity. I often start my undergraduate lectures by asking students the following question: which cognitive faculty would you most hate to lose?
Most of them pick the sense of sight; a few pick hearing. Once in a while, a wisecracking student might pick her sense of humor or her fashion sense. Yet if you lose or are born without your sight or hearing, you can still have a wonderfully rich social existence. You can have friends, you can get an education, you can hold a job, you can start a family. But what would your life be like if you had never learned a language?
Could you still have friends, get an education, hold a job, start a family? But are languages merely tools for expressing our thoughts, or do they actually shape our thoughts?
Most questions of whether and how language shapes thought start with the simple observation that languages differ from one another. And a lot! In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. Clearly, languages require different things of their speakers. Does this mean that the speakers think differently about the world?
Do English, Indonesian, Russian, and Turkish speakers end up attending to, partitioning, and remembering their experiences differently just because they speak different languages? For some scholars, the answer to these questions has been an obvious yes. Just look at the way people talk, they might say. Certainly, speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world just so they can use their language properly.
All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language especially one not closely related to those you know is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions.
Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.
The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going? What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations.
Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space. So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out. To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression e.
Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role. What will they do? The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body.
But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right.
When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already usually much better than I did , but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.
For example, English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors e. Mandarin speakers talk about time vertically more often than English speakers do, so do Mandarin speakers think about time vertically more often than English speakers do? Imagine this simple experiment. I stand next to you, point to a spot in space directly in front of you, and tell you, "This spot, here, is today. Where would you put yesterday? And where would you put tomorrow? But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or eight times more often than do English speakers.
For example, English speakers prefer to talk about duration in terms of length e. For example, when asked to estimate duration, English speakers are more likely to be confused by distance information, estimating that a line of greater length remains on the test screen for a longer period of time, whereas Greek speakers are more likely to be confused by amount, estimating that a container that is fuller remains longer on the screen.
How do we know that it is language itself that creates these differences in thought and not some other aspect of their respective cultures? One way to answer this question is to teach people new ways of talking and see if that changes the way they think. In one such study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors as in Greek to describe duration e. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers.
This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think. Beyond abstract or complex domains of thought like space and time, languages also meddle in basic aspects of visual perception — our ability to distinguish colors, for example. In Russian there is no single word that covers all the colors that English speakers call "blue. Does this distinction mean that siniy blues look more different from goluboy blues to Russian speakers?
Indeed, the data say yes. Russian speakers are quicker to distinguish two shades of blue that are called by the different names in Russian i. For English speakers, all these shades are still designated by the same word, "blue," and there are no comparable differences in reaction time. The disappearance of the advantage when performing a verbal task shows that language is normally involved in even surprisingly basic perceptual judgments — and that it is language per se that creates this difference in perception between Russian and English speakers.
When Russian speakers are blocked from their normal access to language by a verbal interference task, the differences between Russian and English speakers disappear. Even what might be deemed frivolous aspects of language can have far-reaching subconscious effects on how we see the world.
Take grammatical gender. In Spanish and other Romance languages, nouns are either masculine or feminine. In many other languages, nouns are divided into many more genders "gender" in this context meaning class or kind. For example, some Australian Aboriginal languages have up to sixteen genders, including classes of hunting weapons, canines, things that are shiny, or, in the phrase made famous by cognitive linguist George Lakoff, "women, fire, and dangerous things.
It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny.
The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks e. And we can also show that it is aspects of language per se that shape how people think: teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with German and Spanish speakers.
Look at some famous examples of personification in art — the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.
The fact that even quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking is profound. Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun. I have described how languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects.
Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives. Levinson and D. Wilkins, eds.
Tversky et al.
SALT audio is free for everyone on our Seminar pages and via podcast. Long Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view. Members can watch this Seminar video here , and this talk in particular is even better with the visuals. In How Language Shapes Thought Boroditsky presents fascinating insights into the relationship between languages and thought.
HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK?