Language as a thought magnet

Today’s New York Times has a wonderful feature article on how language shapes our perception of the world.

The infamous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claimed that our understanding was limited by language and has long been used as an example of a ‘dead theory’ but new evidence is suggesting that certain aspects of a language can indeed influence how we think

The NYT piece is a wonderfully engaging look at the studies which have shown how our perceptions are biased by language and is written by linguist Guy Deutscher.

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about….

In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love.

On the other hand, an apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, and so are chairs, brooms, butterflies, keys, mountains, stars, tables, wars, rain and garbage. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.


Link to ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think?’

6 thoughts on “Language as a thought magnet”

  1. Dear Dr Bell:
    Thank you for your edifying posts, I have an unrelated question, however…

    In the second to last paragraph of your Feb 15, 2010 Slate article titled, “Don’t Touch That Dial! A history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook,” you wrote: “If anything, the data show that people who use social networking sites actually tend to have better offline social lives, while those who play computer games are better than nongamers at absorbing and reacting to information with no loss of accuracy or increased impulsiveness.” The hyperlink to the article you reference in that sentence seems to be dead. I am wondering, can you send me the bibliographic information for the article you were referring to? The link to the Slate article is: .

    Thank you!
    Bill Eidtson

  2. Haven’t studied or spoken German in quite a while, and recently started learning Spanish. I studied Japanese for a few years, though. I definitely have different thought patterns when speaking Japanese vs speaking English. Japanese is circuitous, while English is more blunt or straightforward. Things that would be stated in English are often left unsaid in Japanese.

    I’m finding some aspects of Spanish grammar a bit difficult as Japanese has no articles, nouns keep the same form in singular and plural (various counter suffixes are attached to the number), and pronouns are rarely used…

    It always cracked me up that the German word for little girl was given the neuter article das.

  3. This reminds me of a segment on the last episode of Radiolab (which we should all check out). Basically, it told the story of a group of deaf children in Venezuela (I think Venezuela, Google research could fix that, but I’m not gonna!) and how together they developed a language on their own when put into a room together.

    The story goes on to talk about the older deaf folks in contrast with the younger deaf folks. The younger deaf folks had more words for self and thinking and feeling and were more likely to have theory of mind than the older folks. Because of their increased vocabulary about language.

    Anyway, interesting listen. This reminds me of that. There we go.

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