Speaking Differently, Thinking Differently

June 29, 2009

Many people probably heard about the study of how the language we speak shapes the way we think a couple of months back. The article I saw at the time focused on gendered nouns and the different adjectives speakers tend to use to describe those nouns in different languages. The word for “bridge,” for example, is masculine in Spanish and feminine in German, and while Spanish speakers tended to describe bridges as being “strong” and “sturdy,” German speakers thought they were “beautiful” and “slender.” The same effect was observed in reverse for “key,” which is feminine in Spanish (“little,” “lovely”) and masculine in German (“hard,” “jagged”).

At Edge recently Lera Boroditsky posted a more complete presentation of the study, and some of the results are really fascinating, especially when it comes to how time and space are perceived by speakers of different languages.

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 — north, south, east, and west — 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 normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

. . . we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they’ll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role. So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don’t use words like “left” and “right”? What will they do?

The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

While this particular anecdote might be said to be a result not of language but of some cultural factor that the language reflects, the architects of the study were able to test some differences and demonstrate that language itself did play a role. “This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think,” Boroditsky writes. “In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.”



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