How Language Shapes Thought By Lera Boroditsky | Scientific American January 20, 2011 p... - 3 views
- People communicate using a multitude of languages that vary considerably in the information they convey.
- Scholars have long wondered whether different languages might impart different cognitive abilities.
- In recent years empirical evidence for this causal relation has emerged, indicating that one’s mother tongue does indeed mold the way one thinks about many aspects of the world, including space and time.
- The latest findings also hint that language is part and parcel of many more aspects of thought than scientists had previously realized.
The notion that different languages may impart different cognitive skills goes back centuries. Since the 1930s it has become associated with American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who studied how languages vary and proposed ways that speakers of different tongues may think differently. Although their ideas met with much excitement early on, there was one small problem: a near complete lack of evidence to support their claims. By the 1970s many scientists had become disenchanted with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it was all but abandoned as a new set of theories claiming that language and thought are universal muscled onto the scene. But now, decades later, a solid body of empirical evidence showing how languages shape thinking has finally emerged. The evidence overturns the long-standing dogma about universality and yields fascinating insights into the origins of knowledge and the construction of reality. The results have important implications for law, politics and education.
Under the Influence
Around the world people communicate with one another using a dazzling array of languages—7,000 or so all told—and each language requires very different things from its speakers. For example, suppose I want to tell you that I saw Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street. In Mian, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea, the verb I used would reveal whether the event happened just now, yesterday or in the distant past, whereas in Indonesian, the verb wouldn’t even give away whether it had already happened or was still coming up. In Russian, the verb would reveal my gender. In Mandarin, I would have to specify whether the titular uncle is maternal or paternal and whether he is related by blood or marriage, because there are different words for all these different types of uncles and then some (he happens to be a mother’s brother, as the Chinese translation clearly states). And in Pirahã, a language spoken in the Amazon, I couldn’t say “42nd,” because there are no words for exact numbers, just words for “few” and “many.”
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Languages differ from one another in innumerable ways, but just because people talk differently does not necessarily mean they think differently.
Research in my lab and in many others has been uncovering how language shapes even the most fundamental dimensions of human experience: space, time, causality and relationships to others.
Let us return to Pormpuraaw. Unlike English, the Kuuk Thaayorre language spoken in Pormpuraaw does not use relative spatial terms such as left and right. Rather Kuuk Thaayorre speakers talk in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west, and so forth). Of course, in English we also use cardinal direction terms but only for large spatial scales. We would not say, for example, “They set the salad forks southeast of the dinner forks—the philistines!” But in Kuuk Thaayorre cardinal directions are used at all scales. This means one ends up saying things like “the cup is southeast of the plate” or “the boy standing to the south of Mary is my brother.” In Pormpuraaw, one must always stay oriented, just to be able to speak properly.