Language and the Shaping Of Thought

While I was doing my undergraduate studies, in addition to my Engineering degree, and my minor in Philosophy, I also pursed a number of “options”, notably including an option in Cognitive Studies. Both the mechanics of thinking and the philosophy of cognition and identity were (and remain) of great interest to me.1

One of the topics that came up in various places in the process of chasing down that option was the extent to which language shapes thought. Does the language we use to think restrict or shape what we can think? 2

This was always presented as kind of an open question, with some heavily respected folks coming down on both sides, but I’ve always felt the answer was pretty obviously yes. I had read 1984 before running into any of this, so I was already a convert to the notion that altering language can alter potential thought and behaviour.

And then, there’s the classic example in the philosophical side, Quine‘s discussion in Word And Object about gavagi. That discussion is all about language and “stimulus synonymy”, but the point from the discussion that always stuck with me was that it was actually possible for people to work from bases so different from mine as to make it almost impossible for us to communicate meaningfully.

I guess I should expand a bit, rather than force you to go read Quine if you haven’t (and really, if you haven’t, you need a native guide to get through it). For the purposes of this discussion I’ll summarize the relevant part of Quine like this: Imagine you’re the first person to meet a newly discovered tribe of people, who speak a previously undiscovered language with no relation any other language. In order to learn their language, or teach them yours, you’re likely going to do a lot of pointing at things and saying the words. The problem is that you don’t actually know what the words mean to the other person. The classic example is Quine’s gavagi: if a rabbit goes running by and one of these tribal folk points at it and says “gavagi”, you might think that this word means “rabbit”. Of course he might have meant “there’s a rabbit”, but he might equally have meant “there’s a one-second rabbit stage” or “there’s an instance of the rabbithood”, or “look ho, the mereological fusion of all rabbits” or whatever. In fact my favourite example from the class where I first encountered this was one the professor delivered with great relish: “…indeed he might well have meant ‘lo, it rabbiteth’ or ‘look, the universe is rabbitting over there’ “.

Quine will go off and get very concerned about the fact that you can’t tell which he means. I was (and remain) much less interested in that than in the possibility that there are people who actually think this way, and what that means not only for communication, but for the way they compose ideas and structure thoughts. While Quine’s talking about stimulous synonymy, I’m trying to imagine what the world looks like to someone who doesn’t recognize discrete objects, but instead views the world as a connected series of manifestations of object ideals. Fascinating. (This is also probably why the really alien aliens–and not in body, but in worldview, always fascinate me in science fiction: everything from Native Tongue to Darmok to Blindsight.)

None of that is what really sealed the deal in my mind, though. For me it was Irish Gaelic, and the instant it was explained to me that you can’t say “I am sad” in Gaelic, but rather that the closest you can get is really something more of the form “there is a sadness upon me”3. (Googling suggests the same is true in Scots Gaelic).

Just think about that, and what it means: that you literally can not identify with your emotions in the language; that your identity is a core thing that is influenced, and affected, by the emotions, but that isn’t identical to them. And also that it is, almost by nature, transient–it’s upon me now, but will not be at some point. There’s a lot of thinking to do in there, but I’ll glib over it with the observation that our fascination with depression (and for SSRIs) in the English speaking world is possibly something that couldn’t have happened in a Gaelic speaking society.

Anyway, the point is that I don’t really think of this as an open question, despite what the consensus state of philosophy and cognitive science may be.

And it looks like there’s now actual experimental results and proper science to back that up.

All of which is long introduction to me pointing you to Lera Boroditsky‘s fascinating article at Edge, HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK?

There’s a hardly a paragraph in there that doesn’t make you want to stop and think about it for a while before going on. (I almost can’t imagine how it would read to professional users of language–particularly writers of fiction, and even moreso poets.)

I can not recommend highly enough that you go read the article if you are even slightly interested in this. It’s great.

I’ll quote a couple of bits:

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

That, by itself is fascinating to me, but then the team uses that to do some experiments in how these differences might affect cognition, and those are fascinating in a whole different way:

To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, 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. If you ask English speakers to do this, they’ll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role. So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don’t use words like “left” and “right”? What will they do?

The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west.

This leads into lots more discussion of how linguistic patterns affect cognition, and how you can prove this with interference tests. It’s all great stuff.

Then later the paper gets into the effects of gendered languages on perception, leading to this:

Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender.

That’s interesting in a couple of ways–both in the way the team intends it to be, and along a whole other “why are these kinds of descriptive words masculine/feminine” axis. (Surely there are cultures where feminitiy is associated with sturdyness or usefulness or jaggedness? There definitely are ones that associate it with dangerousness, c.f. George Lakoff’s example from the Dyirbal language, which has a gender/categorization specifically for “fire, women, and dangerous things”–an example cited by Boroditsky.)

Of course one also recalls Stephen Pinker’s quip: “just because a German thinks a bridge is feminine, doesn’t mean he’s going to ask one out on a date.”

Anyway, it’s a great piece, and will probably lead to me going and attempting some of Boroditsky’s published works, which she has conveniently made available online in PDF form.

  1. I wonder if there’s anything to be noted from the fact that I’ve ended up working in the security areas that focus on questions of “identity”. Probably not.(back)
  2. If I were just that bit more pretentious than I am, I’d probably talk about this in terms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Good thing I’m not that pretentious.(back)
  3. There are, of course, lots of other, less poetic, examples like “I did forgetfulness” instead of “I forgot”.(back)

  2 comments for “Language and the Shaping Of Thought

  1. Eigenvector
    June 18, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    Very interesting. This is an area that I’ve been reading about recently.
    At the moment I’m liking Pinker liking Chomsky. Must have caught a meme.

    Think about this? Do you use the same language at 36 that you used when you
    were 24? Probably not. Does that mean you’re different and you changed
    the language you use? Or did you learn new language which had the effect of
    changing you? It’s all English. Chicken, egg?

  2. Kira
    June 27, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Okay, yes, and of course I have also thought about this stuff a great deal. To use the famous example, what do you do with “the cat is on the mat” when you’re using a descriptive system that doesn’t recognize cat, mat, or subject-on-object? (I think that might have been Quine again, I don’t remember.)

    But there’s a separate problem of relevance and one of salience, and one of secondary effects/emergent properties.

    There’s an article I end up referring to a LOT by Alba and Hutchinson (1987) which does a thorough, thoughtful and decent review of psychological findings on category formation and how that changes with learning. I can’t recommend it enough. One thing it points out is that members of a base class are somewhat interchangeable, while members of class member sets are more detail that reinforces what is known, and members of competing sets are irrelevant and tend to explode the cognitive model you’re applying, or at least limit its applicability. It’s only generalizing to higher levels of abstraction or re-linking your category maps that seem to change how we think about stuff.

    I can’t think of a good example at the moment….um, I’ll try chairs but it may not work. Say you know chairs break if you put enough weight on ’em. If your experience of chairs is built on camp chairs and plastic patio furniture you may consider this relevant. Until you bump into a solid chair made out of wood, which you can put a lot of weight on before it breaks. Doesn’t really change the concept, just refines it a bit and makes you realize how flimsy patio furniture is. If you instead encounter tables you may conclude that tables don’t break when you put a lot of weight on them – which may cause you to question whether chairs should break or whether weight on stuff is really as big a deal as you thought. Creating a new level of abstraction called furniture, however, and deciding that one way to evaluate furniture is how much weight you can put on it, might have the potential of changing the way you think about stuff. I think that’s a lousy example that I explained badly but I hope you know what I mean.

    Salience: In some cases one noun is as good as another. In others it’s not. Saying “kitty” doesn’t change the cat-on-mat problem. In fact, saying “orange” doesn’t change the cat-on-mat problem. (Or orange-on-mat problem, whichever.) The difference has to have a bearing on the cognition, if you know what I mean. Which, when I was thinking about how language changes cognition, is kind of what I ran aground on.

    Emergent properties: It certainly seems to me that if I am taught to refer to human interaction as combative (think for example of the traditional terms of debate), I have the potential of linking everything combative to human interaction. But there’s a vigorous faction that argues that seeing violence on television does not make us violent, or that referring to gays as ‘faggots’ and ‘queers’ does not make us become homophobic. (There’s Eigenvalue’s chicken-and-egg point again, sort of.) Even for the circumstance of one single possible cognitive shift, there’s no clear argument that can be made for or against what the emergent properties of an actual shift might be. One of the arguments of the homo/faggot faction is that use of these words brings an underlying problem to light instead of creating the problem in the first place, and what do you say about the part of the queer community that insisted on taking back those words?

    But then think about the fact that if there is a linkage it’s not just one linkage in isolation, it’s many linkages pretty much shifting around all at once. How do those things interact? If a guy is learning about the positive properties of ‘faggot’ (because he and all his homophobic friends use it as a term of endearment) at the same time he is learning about the supposedly negative properties of ‘bitch’ how can we at all hope to tease out how both of those might play in a brain that is doing all sorts of other things at the very same time?

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada
This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.