Can Language Shape Our Thoughts?

Ask any writer and they’d say that words are incredibly powerful. Perhaps they’re right…but not in the way one would normally assume.

Something we do every day is talk. We add letters together to make words, and then we string those words together to form meaning, thoughts, concepts, and even feelings. And while some don’t give much thought to the action of speaking or writing, many have wondered if the languages we speak affect the way we think. Consequently, can language affect how we see the world and our reality?

Although this question has haunted various philosophers, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists, and many others for centuries, the answer isn’t a simple yes or no. You see, language doesn’t completely control our thoughts; our thoughts are too flexible for that. However, what language can do is transmit ideas across minds that can accordingly influence thoughts and actions.

So, in what ways does language impact our thought and the way we see the world? 

 

Color

One way in which language can affect our view of the world is by how it can influence our perception of the visual world. While there are countless colors on the color spectrum, some languages, such as that of the Dani people of Papua New Guinea, only categorize colors in two words: light and dark. On the other hand, Russians have 12 basic terms for colors. 

Nonetheless, researchers discovered that Dani people can still distinguish among different color tones even if they place them in the same group of warm colors. What differs here between the two languages and their speakers, though, is that Russian speakers can distinguish between different colors faster as their brains realize that something has categorically changed. 

And that is an example of how language can impact our thoughts. Different languages frame the color spectrum in different ways. Accordingly, people speaking different languages are expected to focus differently on colors. Moreover, as we learn how to categorize the color spectrum early on in life, how we do so and the language we use can affect our perceptual decisions.

 

Space and Time Orientation

Another way language can impact our perception of the world is by how it can alter the way we think about the space around us. It was discovered that in some Australian indigenous communities, the words ’right’ and ‘left’ are not used. Instead, in their language, Kuuk Thaayorre, they use compass directions when describing where things are. For instance, when referring to a distant object, they would say: “the tree to the south.” Furthermore, rather than saying “hello,” it is customary to greet people by stating which direction you are heading.

For that reason, speakers of languages that require the usage of cardinal points, using the words north, south, east, and west in their daily communications, have greater spatial orientation than those who speak other languages. 

Moreover, different languages can affect how people view and organize time. For example, English speakers will usually organize time from left to right. In contrast, Arabic speakers will organize it from right to left. In the case of the Australian indigenous communities mentioned above, time is locked on the landscape and their positions. For instance, if they are facing south, time would be organized from left to right. If they are facing north, time would be organized from right to left. If they are facing east, time will come towards the body.

 

Gender

Another cool trick in some languages such as German, French, Spanish, and Arabic is that they assign every noun a gender, typically masculine or feminine. For example, in French, a ‘house’ is considered a feminine noun while ‘pants’ are considered a masculine noun. And while this action of gendering nouns might seem insignificant, in her Ted Talk, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky shared it can greatly impact how we view and describe objects, places, people, and things. 

In German, for example, the word ‘bridge’ is grammatically feminine. Consequently, when speakers try to describe or talk about the object, they are more inclined to use stereotypically feminine words such as ‘pretty’ or ‘elegant’. That is not the case for Spanish speakers, as the word ‘bridge’ in their language is grammatically masculine. Accordingly, they tend to use more stereotypically masculine terms such as ‘strong’ or ‘robust’ when speaking about bridges.

 

Final Thoughts

Nowadays, there are approximately 7,100 different languages spoken around the world. Does this mean that each of these languages’ speakers thinks about the world in a different way? Maybe… maybe not? Thousands have spent their lives debating this question, and thousands more surely will.

But what we can agree upon, through the examples discussed, is that language can certainly play a role in our perception by influencing the way we frame and/or filter what’s around us. For instance, in English, speakers regularly use pronouns including ‘I’ and ‘you’. However, in Japanese, pronouns can be dropped. One impact this has had on speakers is how it shaped their views on relationships. It is argued that the reference to ‘you’ and ‘I’ may remind speakers of the distinction between the self and other, placing distance between them.

Furthermore, another way language can function as a filter of perception, memory, and attention is by how it affects us when we describe events. For example, speakers usually say: “his/her ball broke the lamp,” even when describing an accident in English. However, in Spanish, when describing the same accident, speakers would usually say: “the ball broke the lamp” or “the lamp broke.” Accordingly, English speakers will most likely remember who did the action, while Spanish speakers will remember the intention; it was, in fact, an accident. Therefore, different languages can cause speakers to pay attention to different things, which can enormously impact how we shape our thoughts, ideas, and even beliefs.

So, next time you find yourself thinking in a certain way or focusing on only a few aspects of a situation, ask yourself why. Does language affect the way you think? 

 

 

Photo: Look Studio/Shutterstock

 


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