Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Language Affects Thought

(Hat tip: Mom and the "most e-mailed" feature on the site)

There is an absolutely fantastic article in the Wall Street Journal about how language affects our lives - from cultures to how we act to how we think about things. Some choice excerpts that were really cool:
So if Pormpuraawans think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time?

To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, 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. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.
Meanwhile, the way events are re-told in various cultures affects how people remember them:
In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn't normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn't encode or remember the agent as well. 
 Meanwhile, I couldn't help but somewhat cringe at a note that I've often discussed with friends, co-workers, and the like about how the way they put things affects the way people think about those things/people. I recall one co-worker consistently making jokes about others - completely joking, but I noted to him that by doing so, he is slowly creating perceptions about people, much as media does when and how they discuss various subjects or people as well. People shrug off media bias by suggesting the word differences are innocuous, but what and how we say things does matter:
In another study, English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase "ripped the costume" while the other said "the costume ripped." Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read "ripped the costume" blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.
Read the whole piece, it's really just fascinating.

Side note: In Judaism, a basic concept is that what sets us apart from animals is language; in addition, particular note and honor is given to the use of lashon HaKodesh, which is Biblical Hebrew, over other languages, establishing that there is something special about language and that language in particular.


  1. but what and how we say things does matter

    I'm keeping that for the record. Just so you know. :P

    Love the post!

  2. Yay linguistics! Great link. In school we studied something related to this called the Whorfian hypothesis (see Things like, in languages where there are fewer specific terms for shades of different colors, do the speakers of those languages actually view the world's colors in less specific ways? Can they make the distinction between the shades without the labels for them?
    Also, the urban myth of the many Eskimo words for snow. Cool stuff - Thanks for the reminder about why I found my major super interesting!

  3. Erachet - I figured you might.

    RM - :) I knew someone would appreciate it!

  4. This reminds me of R' SR Hirsch's comments about the verb 'to be' which doesn't have any consistent form (was, am, will be) in English (or in German apparently), whereas the Hebrew 'Hayah' is a very regular verb - Hayah, Hoveh ,Yihyeh, and how this reflects (and therby impacts) Judaism's view of the world. Actually much of R'SRH's writings discuss how Jewish 'culture' is reflected in our Lashon haKodesh - and in turn, how this then influences our view of the world (if only we're attuned to it). (Another example that comes to mind is his discussion about the word 'Olam' (= world) being used to mean 'for eternity'.

  5. This blog has seen better days. Very few intermittent posts and no moderation of spam comments.
    Why not close the commenting and let your archives remain for posterity?