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Does the language you speak change the way you think?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 27, 2013 10:58 AM

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At the end of January I wrote about the philosopher Richard Rorty, who underwent a startling conversion partway through his career. Rorty came to believe that there was no such thing as objective logic or facts, and in his later works he argued that what counts as “logical” or “reasonable” depends on the culture in which you live.

I thought of Rorty again this week as I read a fascinating conversation with linguist Lera Boroditsky on the deep-thinking website, Edge. The topic of discussion was the age-old question: Do people who speak different languages actually think differently, or are the 7,000 languages in the world just different means for expressing a universal human way of thinking?

To answer that question, Boroditsky surveys differences between languages across a number of fundamental categories, including how speakers of different languages conceptualize space and time, and how they think about gender. The differences she highlights are amazing.

Regarding spatial orientation, she says, “There are some languages that don't use words like ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Instead, everything in the language is laid out in absolute space. That means you have to say things like, ‘There is an ant on your northwest leg.’”

Boroditsky points to the Kuuk Thaayore, an aboriginal group in Australia, whose language works like that. The Kuuk Thaayore have a highly developed feel for ordinal directions, and Boroditsky’s research has shown that the unique way they think about space also affects the way they think about time. Whereas English speakers tend to conceptualize time as running from left to right (because we read that way), the Kuuk Thaayore visualize it from East to West.

With gender, there are big differences in the degree to which the grammatical structure of a language emphasizes it. “English is somewhere in the middle,” Boroditsky says, “Some languages like Hebrew mark gender all over the place both for people and for objects…Finnish would be an example of a language with nearly no gender information in it.”

Boroditsky explains that the degree to which a language is gendered actually affects the way speakers think. She cites a number of examples of how this plays out, but the most stunning to my mind is this one:

There's a wonderful study by Alexander Guiora who looked at kids learning Hebrew, kids learning Finnish, and kids learning English as their first language. He asked all of them, "Are you a boy or a girl?" And he had all kinds of other clever ways of figuring out how aware they were of what gender they were. What he found was that kids in these three groups actually figure it out at different rates. The Hebrew learning kids got it first, and then the English kids, and then the Finnish kids last.

These are just a few of the mind-bending linguistic differences Boroditsky points to in the Edge conversation. She also talks about how the language you speak affects the way you look at colors and changes the way you think about causality.

As to the main question—does language affect the way people think—Boroditsky’s answer is a clear (and convincing), “yes.” At the same time, she allows that language is not the sole determinant of thought. “Language shapes thought and also the way that we think importantly shapes the way we talk,” she says, “and aspects of culture importantly shape aspects of language. It's a bi-directional cycle.”

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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