Does the Language We Speak Influence the Way We Think? Part 2

The idea that language shapes the way we think about the world seems almost self-evident. After all, aren’t all of our thoughts filtered through our native language? And it would stand to reason, in that case, that the filter of language itself creates a different life experience for the speakers of different tongues. Indeed, that is what the founder of that idea, Samuel Whorf, claimed. We covered the history of Whorfianism in the first part of this blog post and came to the conclusion that things are not as simple as they might seem.

To this day, the idea that your native language determines how you interact with the world remains in the rubbish bin of history. However, there are some, far more subtler, indications that different languages do actually have some effect on your perceptions and, thus, thoughts. In today’s post, we’re taking a look at a number of examples of how language can play a part in shaping our thoughts.

Some keys are more girlie than others

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects where native languages have an effect on the people who speak them comes in the case of grammatical genders. We’ve covered this topic in greater length in a previous blog post but, to sum it up, the grammatical genders of your native language have more of an effect on your perception than you might initially think.

For example, in both German and Spanish, nouns have genders that correspond to biological ones. So, “the table” is masculine in German (der Tisch) and feminine in Spanish (la mesa). In an experiment where native Spanish and German speakers were asked to describe everyday objects, which just happened to be from the opposing genders in those languages, in English, it appeared that their gendered native languages still had an effect.

So, if a key is masculine in German (der Schlüssel) and feminine in Spanish (la llave), the test subjects used traditionally strong and masculine words to describe them if they were German and feminine words if they were a native Spanish-speaker. You can guess who used adjectives like hard, jagged, metal and who went for intricate, little, golden.

The trouble with bridges

In the same study, a word with opposite genders in these two languages, for example, the bridge, which is feminine in German (die Brücke) and masculine in Spanish (el puente), has a very similar effect. So you’ll find Germans describing it as beautiful, slender, elegant and the Spanish with words like strong, sturdy, dangerous. However, rather surprisingly, a similar effect can be described in English as well that doesn’t have different grammatical genders for its nouns.

It was a big deal when the Millau Viaduct opened in southern France, since it signified the new tallest bridge in the world. And, accordingly, the event received a fair share of news coverage. As might be expected, German newspapers praised its elegance and lightness while the French (for whom a bridge is masculine – le pont) drew more attention to its sturdiness with phrases like “a concrete giant”. Where it gets interesting, however, is that when looking at the coverage in English-language newspapers, they seemed to align with their German counterparts, praising the bridge’s lightness and slenderness. Since this research hasn’t been published, it’s difficult to assess its meaning but one could try to draw (absolutely non-conclusive) parallels with English also being a Germanic language. Or maybe the reporters covering the bridge story just got their inspiration from German-speaking newspapers. Whatever the case, it seems that English-speaking journalists also view bridges as feminine.

“In front of me”? You mean “to the south”?

But labeling things feminine or masculine aren’t the only ways the language you use can affect you. It can also happen with activities as trivial as giving directions. In most languages you might have heard of, it’s common to relate the position of something to the speaker or other prominent landmark: “the house next to the park” or “the book right in front of you”. This is so ingrained that there might not, at first, seem an alternative.

But not so for the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr in northern Queensland in Australia. For them, positions of objects are expressed in cardinal directions, instead of relating to you. So the book is certainly not in front of you, instead, it’s located to the south of you. That house, in turn, is just northeast of the park.

To someone who doesn’t speak Guugu Yimithirr, there seems to be an obvious problem. How on earth (pun intended) are you supposed to know which way is north or south? Without a compass, determining which cardinal direction you’re facing is near-impossible. That particular problem is something that has probably never worried a native speaker of Guugu Yimithirr and for the simple reason that they seem to have an ingrained spider sense for that sort of thing. Like their very own invisible compass, their sense of (cardinal) direction doesn’t fail them even at night in a foreign place after having been spun around a few times. They can always find north. Even when watching a film on TV, speakers of this particular language use cardinal directions to describe the action, depending on which way the TV set happens to be faced. So, if you happened to be watching an intense scene from a TV facing west, your Guugu Yimithirr-speaking friend might warn the protagonist of “the man quickly approaching from the east”.

And so, in order to properly speak Guugu Yimithirr, you simply need to be in possession of a similar type of mental compass. Seemingly, that means that the language itself presents demands of what way its speakers need to think. In cardinal directions, in this case.

Which came first – orange or the orange?

Moving from the intricate workings of aboriginal languages to something more relatable can still find subtle ways in which languages toy with our heads. Let’s take colour, for example.

While there are innumerable hues the human eye can perceive, there are only so many distinct names for colours. But the number of colour terms languages make use of is another fascinating topic since there is as much similar in the process as there is different.

Of the languages discovered so far, most have between two and eleven words for the basic colours. Some languages have only two colour terms, something that corresponds to “light” and “dark”, or black and white. But if a language only has two colour terms, it’s always for black and white. If a third is added, it’s red. In languages that have four different terms for colours, the last one to be added is either yellow or green. With five, it’s again either green or yellow, based on what was missing before. The next to follow are blue and brown.

English today uses the full set of eleven basic colour terms – black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, pink, gray, brown, orange and purple. But that wasn’t always the case. Although colour terms can appear as ancient and unchanging as time itself, “orange” wasn’t always a part of the English lexicon and only appeared into common usage when the fruit it’s named after made its way to Britain in the 16th century. Before that, the colour was described essentially as yellow-red.

But certainly, while there wasn’t a term for the colour orange before the 1500s, people still perceived the colour. They just didn’t call it what it’s called today. So language can’t possible shape the way we think. But even that question isn’t as easily set aside as it might seem at first glance.

Take, for example, Russian. Russian has two words for what an English speaker might call blue. There’s голубой (goluboy) which is essentially light blue and there’s синий (siniy) which corresponds to dark blue. In experiments, it has been shown that native Russian speakers are quicker to distinguish between the light and dark shades of blue compared to English-speakers. It could be speculated the reason for that is their language which primes their brains to notice such differences.

Conclusion – Whorf wasn’t really right but there is evidence of language having some effect on human perception

The level of linguistic determinism Whorf initially described has long been debunked. As the linguist Roman Jakobson put it half a century ago, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” The fact that your particular language might not have the word for “magenta” does not necessarily mean that you don’t perceive it. Otherwise, the fact that even most native English speakers don’t know what magenta is, would essentially spell doom for the colour.

However, it also can’t be denied that there have been experiments that show how languages do, in fact, affect our perceptions in small yet predictable ways. Whether it’s in determining if a key is tiny or hard, a bridge curvy or sturdy, or what shade of blue we’re currently looking at, there do seem to be differences in how the speakers of different languages perceive the world. And while they fall short of the determinism first posited by Whorf, some interesting effects are now recognised.

In this blog series, we have gone through the short history of Whorfianism in the previous blog post and looked at real-life experiments and examples of how languages do, in fact, shape our world. We’ll finish the series by examining why this idea is so popular and what other conclusions we can draw from the research mentioned. Find the conclusion in part 3 of Does the Language We Speak Influence the Way We Think?