Language is the uniquely-human means of communication – we use words in a structured pattern to relay information to one another. While different combinations of words across different languages can relay the same message, could the differences among languages also affect how we perceive the information? Does or can language, alone, shape the way we think? Follow us through several examples in which language influences thought.
On the Cape York Peninsula near the northernmost point of Australia is a small aboriginal community – the research team of Dr. Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University, spent some time studying an aboriginal community called Pormpuraaw and its Kuuk Thaayorre culture – a culture with no terms or conceptualization for "left," "right," "front" or "back." Everything is described in reference to cardinal direction. Appropriate phrasings might be, “Look at that dingo to your North-northwest!” or “Pass the fish Southeast.” This requires each person to constantly have an excellent sense of direction, as a highly developed sixth sense for those born and raised in the region.
Even more fascinating is their conceptualization of time. When asked to place photographs of an aging man in chronological order, most English speakers would place young-to-old from left to right, in reference to the direction in which they read. Similarly, those who speak Hebrew would place the photos right to left. Mandarin speakers reference time vertically – they placed the youngest photo farthest from the body and the chronology came inward. This came up in a different piece of Boroditsky's research, found here (PDF).
Kuuk Thaayorre does a combination of all of these methods, but not for the same reasoning. A person's arrangement of the photos depended on the direction in which they were seated – always putting youngest to the east and oldest to the west, the way the sun rises and sets. When facing east, the person used a vertical formation with the youngest photo farthest away from the body. When facing north, he or she arranged young to old from right to left. Our time in Pormpuraaw has concluded for this leg of the trip. We must now be on our way to the colder climates of Russia. Grab your passport and Ushanka, and let us be on our way.
In addition to directions and chronology, the assigned gender of a term can affect its perception within a culture. In many languages (notably, Romance and Slavic languages), certain words and objects are assigned “genders” or classifications (read an interesting archive discussion on WordReference forums). For example, the Russian term for bed is feminine and terms that qualify the word "bed" would therefore be feminine. Likewise, the word for “chair” is masculine, and every adjective and pronoun associated with that chair would also require a masculine word ending.
As evidence that these classifications may affect thought process, a staggering majority of paintings personifying Death will match the gender assignment of the word “death” in the artist's native language. In Russian, death is feminine (and even has a name – Baba Yaga, "Baba" meaning old woman and "Yaga" meaning hag). Russian painters more frequently depict death as a woman. In German however, death is masculine, resulting in mostly male personifications. (As a matter of fact, I could use some authentic gummi bears. Gummibären are a German creation. For good measure we will also bring some Spanish friends along. Let’s go...)
Could this same gender perception apply to everyday objects? When asking a German speaker to describe a key, a masculine word, you may receive answers such as heavy, jagged or hard. Although English does not distinctly classify words as masculine and feminine, these descriptors suggest masculinity. Ask the same question to a Spanish speaker for whom “key” is a feminine word, you might receive such answers as slender, elegant, and fragile. Is how you speak also how you think? A debatable argument that we will leave to your own thought process. No matter what language it may be in. We here at Glyph hope you enjoyed the tour!