Edge has a fantastic essay on how the language we speak can affect how we experience and think about the world.
The piece is by psychologist Lera Boroditsky whose work has shown that the not only are there differences across people with different mother tongues, but that asking people to use different words can affect their perceptions.
Boroditsky’s article is full of fascinating snippets about how language structure enforces a different mental set on the speaker.
For example, she notes that in Russian you need to change verbs to indicate whether the action was completed or not (when someone read a book, did they finish the book or just manage part of it). In Turkish verbs indicate whether you saw the thing yourself or whether you’re describing what someone else has told you.
But one of the most vivid examples is from the language of a small Aboriginal community in Australia:
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 ‚Äî north, south, east, and west ‚Äî to define space.
This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly…
The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).
Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them ‚Äî in fact, forces them ‚Äî to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.
This research is interesting because it relates to the much maligned Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that claims that language shapes how we experience the world.
When I was a student this theory wheeled out in psycholinguistics classes to show how naive we used to be. I’m no expert on psycholinguistics, but I suspect that this was due to the dominance of Noam Chomsky’s idea that all languages are based on an underlying universal grammar, implying that, fundamentally, we all think about things in broadly similar ways. Jerry Fodor’s language of thought hypothesis might also have been a culprit.
What ever the cause, the effect of language on perception and understanding was neglected for many years and only recently have some of these interesting effects come to light through the work of people like Boroditsky.
Link to ‘How does language shape the way we think?’