Language as a looking glass

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 — 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.

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?’


  1. St Louis
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    There has been a good deal of work in the area of language and culture. The so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was a term coined by critics of these ideas and should be discarded. The anthropologist, Edmund Carpenter, who has also written on this subject, made the following observation in a personal communication. Writing about Whorf, he says:
    “His work is often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf theory. This misleads: Sapir’s contribution was minimal. He certainly encouraged and endorsed Whorf, and certain passages about relations between language and thought appear in several of his writings. But he never addresses himself directly to this subject and appears not to have recognized aspectual verbs as timeless. Whorf’s critics focus entirely on his deterministic view of the relationship between language and culture. His more important essays on spatial metaphors and Hopi metaphysics are rarely addressed, perhaps because they ignore determinism. Whorf and Sapir died before the subject gained wide interest. Dorothy Lee, however, was alive. Critics who wrote about Whorf’s writings ignored hers, perhaps because she might have answered. She was by far the most brilliant scholar I ever knew.” (Quoted with permission of the author.)
    It’s good that these ideas are being recirculated. Most of the people who work with living cultures come to this conclusion from their own experiences (Dan Everett for one). People think that Chomsky is a liberal but there is nothing liberal about his ideas about language.

  2. Posted June 18, 2009 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    In my work, I deal with a floating compression model, which appears to be the most accurate model for how we create structure at both a cellular and a musculoskeletal scale. The bones have a floating relationship with each other!
    The biggest challenges I find with the model are linguistic: we are rooted in a world where floating is the last word we’d use to describe our structure. We have phrases like “rib cage” to describe a set of bones that can each move independently. At almost a sub-linguistic level, we believe that we move with a “levers and hinges” model — think of someone dancing “the robot”.
    We move very differently. We are viscoelastic — a continuum between fluidity and rigidity. If we fundamentally relax the tension, we are very fluid-like. You can again see this in many varieties of dancing. When I consciously think of this fluidity, I can be far more relaxed in my body.
    As far as I can tell, we’re often rigid because we don’t know anything else is possible. We have very few images of flow/fluidity in our day-to-day living.

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