Noam Chomsky is famous for his suggestion that language shapes the way we think. Put very simply, we have no concept of anything we can’t describe with words. He also believes there is a universal grammar that all humans instinctively adhere to.
Although I personally think he overstates his case, there’s no doubt in my mind that language does influence our perception of the world. Perhaps this is because I’m a non-native speaker, so I can see subtly changes in me when I switch from Greek to English. Friends have even claimed that my very voice sounds different. As Sue Vincent put it in her comment, there is a subtle and unspoken shading in words. A native speaker has an emotional attachment to words that never makes it into the dictionary and which can convey far more than just a grammatically correct combination of words alone can ever do.
Anyway, I came across this great post on Nautil.us – 5 Languages That Could Change the Way You See the World, which led to this post. As always, I encourage you to check out the original post as well – this one is peppered with links to the original research, so it can serve as a nice point of reference.
An English-centered view of the world
I went to my neighbor’s house for something to eat yesterday.
Think about this sentence. It’s pretty simple—English speakers would know precisely what it means. But what does it actually tell you—or, more to the point, what does it not tell you? It doesn’t specify facts like the subject’s gender or the neighbor’s, or what direction the speaker traveled, or the nature of the neighbors’ relationship, or whether the food was a cookie or a curry. English doesn’t require speakers to give any of that information, but if the sentence were in Greek, the gender of every person involved would be specified.
The way that different languages convey information has fascinated linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists for decades. In the 1940s, a chemical engineer called Benjamin Lee Whorf published a wildly popular paper in the MIT Technology Review (pdf) that claimed the way languages express different concepts—like gender, time, and space—influenced the way its speakers thought about the world. For example, if a language didn’t have terms to denote specific times, speakers wouldn’t understand the concept of time flowing.
This argument was later discredited, as researchers concluded that it overstated language’s constraints on our minds. But researchers later found more nuanced ways that these habits of speech can affect our thinking. The primary way language influences our minds is through what it forces us to think about—not what it prevents us from thinking about.
Here are five examples that reveal how information can be expressed in extremely different ways, and how these habits of thinking can affect us.
A Language Where You’re Not the Center of the World
English speakers and others are highly egocentric when it comes to orienting themselves in the world. Objects and people exist to the left, right, in front, and to the back of you. You move forward and backward in relation to the direction you are facing. For an aboriginal tribe in Australia called the Guugu Ymithirr, such a “me me me” approach to spatial information makes no sense. Instead, they use cardinal directions to express spatial information. So rather than “Can you move to my left?” they would say “Can you move to the west?”
Guugu Ymithirr speakers have a kind of “internal compass” that is imprinted from an extremely young age (if you’re interested in reading an actual compass, check out this guide and this one if you’re looking for tips on map reading). In the same way that English-speaking infants learn to use different tenses when they speak, so their children learn to orient themselves along compass lines, not relative to themselves. In fact, if a Guugu Ymithirr speaker wants to direct your attention to the direction behind him, he points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.
Other studies have shown that speakers of languages that use cardinal directions to express locations have fantastic spatial memory and navigation skills—perhaps because their experience of an event is so well-defined by the directions it took place in.
A Language Where Time Flows East to West
In another study, language also seemed to affect a speaker’s interpretation of time. In a series of experiments, the linguists had Kuuk Thaayorre speakers – another Australian aboriginal language – put a sequential series of cards in order—one which showed a man aging, another of a crocodile growing, and of a person eating a banana.
The speakers were sat at tables during the experiment, once facing south, and another time facing north. Regardless of which direction they were facing, all speakers arranged the cards in order from east to west—the same direction the sun’s path takes through the sky as the day passes. By contrast, English speakers doing the same experiment always arranged the cards from left to right—the direction in which we read.
For the Kuuk Thaayorre speakers, the passage of time was intimately tied to the cardinal directions. The researchers never told anyone which direction they were facing. The Kuuk Thaayorre knew that already and spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.
A Language Where Colors Are Metaphors
Humans see the world within a certain spectrum of light, and, all individual languages were thought to have a set of specific color terms that partition the visible color spectrum. The theory of “basic color terms” argued that all languages had at least terms for black, white, red, and warm or cold colors.
Not so in Yélî Dnye. Spoken by a Papua New Guinea tribe, this is quite dissimilar to other neighboring language groups. It has little specific color terminology—indeed, there is no word for “color.” Instead, speakers talk about color as part of a metaphorical phrase, with color terms derived from words for objects in the islander’s environment.
For example, to describe something as red, islanders say “like the (red) parrot.” The word for black comes from the word for night. Not only that, but the islander’s grammar reinforces this metaphorical slant, saying, “The skin of the man is like the (white) parrot,” rather than “He is white.”
A Language That Makes You Provide Evidence
In Peru, the Matses people speak with great care, making sure that every single piece of information they communicate is true as far as they know at the time of speaking. Each uttered sentence follows a different verb form depending on how you know the information you are imparting, and when you last knew it to be true.
For example, if you are asked, “How many apples do you have?” then a Matses speaker might answer, “I had four apples last time I checked my fruit basket.” Regardless of how sure the speaker is that they still have four apples, if they can’t see them, then they have no evidence what they are saying is true—for all they know, a thief could have stolen three of the apples, and the information would be incorrect.
The language has a huge array of specific terms for information such as facts that have been inferred in the recent and distant past, conjectures about different points in the past, and information that is being recounted as a memory.
What distinguishes Matses from other languages that require speakers to give evidence for what they are saying is that Matses has one set of verb endings for the source of the knowledge and another, separate way of conveying how true, or valid the information is, and how certain they are about it.
Interestingly, there is no way of denoting that a piece of information is hearsay, myth, or history. Instead, speakers impart this kind of information as a quote, or else as being information that was inferred within the recent past.
A Language That Has No Word for “Two”
The Pirahã people are an indigenous tribe living in the Amazon. They speak a language without numbers, color terms, perfect form, or basic quantity terms like “few” or “some”—supposed by some, like color, to be an universal aspect of human language. Instead of using words like “each” and “more” or numbered amounts to give information about quantity, Pirahã said whether something was big or small. There is a word that roughly translates as “many,” but really it means “to bring together.” The Pirahã also had no artistic tradition, and voiced no sense of deep memory.
As this directly contradicts Chomsky’s theory of a universal grammar, the Pirahã have been studied extensively since their discovery, in 2005. In a series of experiments, the Pirahã’s cognition has been tested over and again: Is number cognition possible without a numerical system? The answer appears to be “not really.”
In one experiment, the Pirahã were shown rows of batteries, and asked to replicate the rows. They were able to recreate rows containing two or three batteries, but nothing above that. Instead of counting, the Pirahã used an estimation strategy, which worked well for them up to a certain point. It may be that the Pirahã have never actually needed to count in order to get by—and the linguists who have observed the Pirahã in the field certainly think this is the case.
Interestingly, the Pirahã don’t seem to have a very high opinion of outsiders. They are monolingual, preferring to stick with their own lexicon rather than borrow words from English or Spanish, and they call all other languages, “crooked head.” It is a sharp contrast to our society, based on globalized languages and all manner of communication translated into nothing but numbers—endless streams of 1s and 0s.
These book links below are courtesy of Connie Flanagan:
- Sign Language and the Brain: a Review, by Ruth Campbell, Mairéad MacSweeney and Dafydd Waters. A book dealing with the question of how signed languages are processed by the brain.
- Seeing Voices, by Oliver Sacks, MD. A journey into the world of the deaf.
- The Island of the Colorblind, by Oliver Sacks, MD. An exploration of a society where total congenital colorblindness is the norm.
While you’re pondering the merits of a world without algebra, why not enjoy my children’s book, Runaway Smile for free?
Great article! I’m really interested in this sort of thing. I hadn’t heard about the language that uses metaphors as colours before.
Thanks! They certainly redefine the term “colorful metaphors” 😉
Thanks for the like. I never thought nudity was wrong, except it should be displayed in appropriate places. I am not ashamed of the human body. It is beautiful. Just surprised it’s allowed on WP.
Your post wasn’t about nudity, in my mind. It was about respect.
Sorry, I just find this topic so fascinating, but check out Oliver Sacks on The Island of the Colorblind… https://www.oliversacks.com/books-by-oliver-sacks/island-colorblind/
Those are wonderful links; thank you so much! I have to add them t the post 🙂
Thanks for understanding my unbridled enthusiasm for this subject. 🙂
Understanding, sharing, encouraging… whichever, the books are now in the new “further reading” section of the post. Thanks for the tips! 🙂
I think for Oliver Sacks I may have meant his book Seeing Voices at https://www.oliversacks.com/books-by-oliver-sacks/seeing-voices/.
I’ll just add both 🙂
And what about sign language and the brain? https://jdsde.oxfordjournals.org/content/13/1/3.full
Fascinating post indeed and great comments. It reminds me of a recent conversation with another blogger and writer (Ailsa) about translations. Being a Spanish and Catalan speaker first, I find it true that you have some attachment to certain words in that language, although after so many years in the UK sometimes I miss certain expressions in Spanish that I can easily use in English. With regards to Kathy’s comment about ‘Tengo hambre’ instead of I am hungry, in Spanish the things you ‘are’ are intrinsic qualities (soy alto, I’m tall), but of course, being hungry is not. We can say ‘estoy hambriento’ as a temporary thing… Probably language colours the way we see the world, but more so, I suspect, if you live within a community where only one language is used and no external influences exist…
The Spanish language is a great example of temporal thinking, as it clearly differentiates between a permanent and a temporary situation. I wonder how that shapes the Spaniards’ world view!
That is really fascinating! I love reading about how languages “work.” I think it’s very interesting about the languages who locate the world according to cardinal directions. Thanks for sharing this!
A pleasure! Thanks for reading 🙂
Very interesting article, Nicholas. I studied three different languages in school and minored in one of them. It is very interesting how the order of words changes from one language to the next. As I am very math-minded, I find it difficult to imagine how a language can exist without numbers.
My granddaughter is learning to talk, and it amazes me how much she understands with what little speaking ability she has. It is fascinating to see what words she picks up right away, such as when in a frustrated moment while assembling a toy, my mechanical engineer son let go with a few expletives (he had just gotten in from his deployment). That little one? She picked up the worst of the lot and knew when to use it.
Lol – they always know which ones are the worst ones, don’t they? Even if there’s no such thing as a universal language, there sure is a universal swearword one 😀
Lol. I recall when living in Italy, the first things the Italians taught me were cuss-words and insults! 😀
Isn’t that always the case? 😀
Fascinating! I still say I have to plan a trip to Greece. The more I learn about the culture the more attractive it becomes. Great post, Nicholas!
Aw, so sweet! Thanks 🙂
As for your upcoming trip, I’ll be looking forward to finally meeting up in person 🙂
I shared this on the Linguistics and Conlangs Facebook group.
Wow, thanks!! 🙂
And then several other people in the group shared my post. Nicholas, would you like to join that group? I’ll add you if you’re interested. You don’t have to be a professional linguist to join.
That’s very kind of you; thank you! I’m obviously no linguist, but I have a keen interest in language, so I’d be delighted 🙂
Done! The administrator still has to approve it.
Wow, that was quick! Thanks 🙂
Lorinda, I’m also fascinated by languages. Would I be able to join the Facebook group as well?
Sure! I’ll go in right now and nominate you! All my termite books include conlangs, you know, if you’re interested in that subject.
Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking post!
I believe Chompsky is right in many ways, despite the nuances. Language development in toddlers is a huge step in organizing concepts/the world in their growing brains. That’s one of the reasons why tiny people are such word-sponges; they are primed for learning and labeling the world. I used to do a lot of work with little kids who had 3 emotions: happy, sad, mad. I would teach them the words to help them differentiate feelings: mad versus frustrated, worried, impatient, for example. It was only after they had the words that they were able to start distinguishing the differences between the feelings and their causes.
I agree with you on questioning a universal grammar. I think humans are basically emotional creatures, and that we perceive the world through a continuous cascade of feelings, some obvious and others more subtly directing our actions and interactions. My guess is that feelings are part and parcel of being human, but how we, through language and culture, choose to label and judge them makes a world of difference.
Thanks for the great comment! I had never thought of that, but it makes perfect sense. Plus, you got to refer to toddlers as tiny people, which is way cool 😀
Well written and informative post, Nicholas. I speak Thai and that language is very big of phrases. Words strung together have a meaning totally different from the individual words. Did you know that many left handed people tend to arrange thing from right to left. At least I do,
I didn’t know either of that. Fascinating!
Great post, Nicholas! I’ve always been fascinated by the differences in languages. I live in the US in Minne-snow-ta, and though I know not all snow is the same, I still find it amazing the Inuit have so many different words for it. The bits about the various tribes point out the connection between language, environment, and survival. If the Pirahã don’t need to count to survive, why bother creating a linguistic reference to numbers? So cool 🙂
A very interesting blog, Nicholas. I live in Spain and I noticed the comment on the Spanish language about ‘fridges. The Spanish say ‘I have hunger’ instead of the English way – ‘I am hungry’. I am fascinating that Inuits (Eskimos) have 50 words for snow – perhaps understandable as they are surrounded by it!
Another great example of one’s environment shaping one’s language 🙂
I’m currently reading Life Among the Qalllunaat by Canadian Inuk (singular for Inuit) author Mini Aolda Freeman. The aspects of their language that reflect their cultural believes and values is fascinating. I’ll be meeting her at the re-launch of her memoir May 19th.
The Pirahã schoolchildren must live a charmed life. No algebra!
Lol – my feelings exactly! 😀
(In the interest of full disclosure, I was quite the nerd and loved algebra back in school. Geometry gave me some trouble at first, then I grew to understand the logic behind it and loved that, too – even if she broke my heart at first).
I was bored by math until I discovered calculus and statistics. Calculus was so much like music that I found it incredibly beautiful, and understanding statistics helped me to understand probability. As a consequence, I don’t play the lottery!
Lol – time well spent, then 😀
I love this post; language and linguistics were my field of study. I have a lifelong fascination with words.
I once watched an encounter where an irate parent challenged his son’s Spanish teacher,holding to the idea that study of foreign language was useless. The teacher used a simple but effective example of cultural differences that reflect in the 2 languages.
In English, we say “the refrigerator is running”. In Spanish, it translates as “the refrigerator is functioning”. The parent understood the significance, and walked away satisfied, requesting a tutor for his son. ☺ Van
Lol – now I can’t get the idea of a running fridge out of my head… 😀
Fascinating stuff Nicholas. I have always been interested in the way that some European languages move things around. For example, ‘To the station I am going’, rather than ‘I am going to the station’. Your examples appeal to me a lot, especially the Aboriginal compass way of describing orientation.
Best wishes, Pete.
Thanks, Pete! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
Reblogged this on MEANINGS AND MUSINGS and commented:
An enlightening post on Language, enjoy!
Fascinating piece. I knew of certain Amazonian tribes having no concept of time so that ‘Why have you decided to go hunting now? implied a causality they never considered. Everything was done ‘now’. The other instances you quote imply that language itself both shapes thought and is shaped by it. It makes ‘the Word’ in its widest sense even more critical. I have always thought that but this article makes a suggestion as to why that is!
Thanks for the great comment! 🙂
Really interetsing article, Nicholas. Speaking French as a second language every day for years, I too became aware of the subtle and unspoken shading in words. A native speaker has an emotional attachment to words that never makes it into the dictionary and which can convey far more than just a gramatically correct combination of words alone can ever do.
That’s exactly right! I often don’t know why a particular word fits a sentence, but it just clicks, you know? And I know it’s because of what you describe so perfectly here – “an emotional attachment that never makes it into the dictionary.” I’m so copying that into the post… 🙂