Life Science

The world through language

What language can tell us about how we think

January 7, 2011

If you know only one language, you live only once.

A man who knows two languages is worth two men.

He who loses his language loses his world.

(Czech, French and Gaelic proverbs.)

People have thought about the profound impact of words on their world for centuries. Now, a surge of research in psychology, cognitive science and linguistics has sparked renewed discussion about the relationship between language and thought. The hypothesis first put forward fifty years ago by linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf—that our language significantly affects our experience of the world—is making a comeback in various forms, and with it no shortage of debate.

The idea that language shapes thought was taboo for a long time, said Dan Slobin, a psycholinguist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Now the ice is breaking.”

The taboo, according to Slobin, was largely due to the widespread acceptance of the ideas of Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential linguists of the 20th century. Chomsky proposed that the human brain comes equipped at birth with a set of rules—or universal grammar—that organizes language. As he likes to say, a visiting Martian would conclude that everyone on Earth speaks mutually unintelligible dialects of a single language.

Chomsky is hesitant to accept the recent claims of language’s profound influence on thought. “I’m rather skeptical about all of this, though there probably are some marginal effects,” he said.

Some advocates of the Whorfian view find support in studies of how languages convey spatial orientation. English and Dutch speakers describe orientation from an egocentric frame of reference (to my left or right). Mayan speakers use a geocentric frame of reference (to the north or south). When presented with a row of toy animals—for example, a cow, a sheep and a horse—and then spun 180 degrees in their chairs and asked to reproduce the arrangement, Dutch speakers will keep the left-to-right directionality, while Mayan speakers will preserve the north-south directionality. If the cow was originally north and to the left, Dutch speakers will keep it left, whereas Mayan speakers will place it to their right, preserving its north orientation.

Does this mean they think about space in fundamentally different ways?

Not exactly, said Lila Gleitman, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania. Since we ordinarily assume that others talk like us, she explained, vague instructions like “arrange it the same way” will be interpreted in whatever orientation (egocentric or geocentric) is most common in our language. “That’s going to influence how you solve an ambiguous problem, but it doesn’t mean that’s the way you think, or must think,” said Gleitman. In fact, she repeated the experiment with unambiguous instructions, providing cues to indicate whether objects should be arranged north-south or left-right. She found that people in both languages are just as good at arranging objects in either orientation.

Similarly, Anna Papafragou, a psychologist at the University of Delaware, thinks that the extent of language’s effect on thought has been somewhat exaggerated. Papafragou compared how long Greek and English speakers paid attention to clip-art animation sequences, for example, a man skating towards a snowman. By measuring their eye movements, Papafragou was able to tell which parts of the scene held their gaze the longest. Because English speakers generally use verbs that describe manner of motion, like slide and skip, she predicted they would pay more attention to what was moving (the skates). Since Greeks use verbs that describe path, like approach and ascend, they should pay more attention to endpoint of the motion (the snowman). She found that this was true only when people had to describe the scene; when asked to memorize it, attention patterns were nearly identical. According to Papafragou, when people need to speak about what they see, they’ll focus on the parts relevant for planning sentences. Otherwise, language does not show much of an effect on attention.

“Each language is a bright transparent medium through which our thoughts may pass, relatively undistorted,” said Gleitman.

Others think that language does, in fact, introduce some distortion. Linguist Guy Deutscher of the University of Manchester in the U.K. suggests that while language can’t prevent you from thinking anything, it does compel you to think in specific ways. Language forces you to habitually pay attention to different aspects of the world.

For example, many languages assign genders to nouns (“bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish). A study by cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University found that German speakers were more likely to describe “bridge” with feminine terms like elegant and slender, while Spanish speakers picked words like sturdy and towering. Having to constantly keep track of gender, Deutscher suggests, may subtly change the way native speakers imagine object’s characteristics.

However, this falls short of the extreme view some ascribe to Whorf: that language actually determines thought. According to Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist and linguist at Harvard University, three things have to hold for the Whorfian hypothesis to be true: speakers of one language should find it nearly impossible to think like speakers of another language; the differences in language should affect actual reasoning; and the differences should be caused by language, not just correlated with it. Otherwise, we may just be dealing with a case of “crying Whorf.”

While some habits of thought may spill over from distinctions in language, said Pinker, “the claims are all pretty minor stuff, far milder than the grandiose claims often made for Whorfian hypotheses.”

But even mild claims may reveal complexities in the relationship between language and thought. “You can’t actually separate language, thought and perception,” said Debi Roberson, a psychologist at the University of Essex in the U.K. “All of these processes are going on, not just in parallel, but interactively.”

Recent brain imaging results might provide some of the strongest evidence for this interaction, said Roberson. In studies where subjects identify colored patches, language-processing brain areas are activated long before decisions are made, suggesting that these areas of the brain are directly involved in perceptual decisions.

Language may not, as the Gaelic proverb suggests, form our entire world. But it will continue to provide insights into our thoughts—whether as a window, a looking glass, or a distorted mirror.

*references to the titles of Deutscher and Pinker’s recent books.


The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for biweekly updates

About the Author

Lena Groeger studied biology and philosophy at Brown University and is especially interested in the intersection of these two fields. After working as a graphic designer for Brown Health Education, she decided to think outside the poster and explore new means of communication, which led her to SHERP. She’s excited to write about the multidisciplinary questions of science and ethics for the general public. Visit her web site at



D. Sansom says:

There is a real distinction between brain activity and thought. We can have brain activity without thought but not thought without brain activity. That is, the brain does a lot without ever trying to convey information about experience. But when we think, we endeavor to predicate something about something else. We intend an informational claim. That is, we say something like “x is p”. Such a claim makes sense to us only because we know how to predicate “p” to “x”. How do we learn that? We learn this through seeking to say something about the world in ways that others can understand and verify. We learn how to think by learning how to communicate in ways that are recognized as true or false in our interaction with others who use language in a similar way. We think about the world in language claims (i.e., propositions) that pretend to be true. Because we are part of a society that uses language to communicate, we form thoughts. In a sense, when we think, we experience the ability of our language to say something, to create meaningful claims, about the world.

Forrest Higgs says:

It is so lovely to see the diktat of Noam Chomsky finally being recognised for the fraud that it is. Chomsky set linguistics back in the West as far as Lysenko did agronomy and genetics in the old USSR.

Michael M. Butler says:

The problem with a phrase like “actually determines” is that it’s Aristotelian-Boolean.

The Russian word “svoboda” does not mean what a normative American means by the dictionary translation “freedom”, and neither does the German word “Freiheit”. Competent translators try to stay aware of this: Language comes with a culture.

When people study subjects in a foreign land, they report that they think about the subject later in the language in which the subject was taught. Is this completely unrelated to Sapir-Whorf, or somewhat unrelated, or related?

Which of the latter two could have anything to do with a phrase like “actually determines”?

My partner and I really enjoyed reading this blog post, I was just itching to know do you trade featured posts? I am always trying to find someone to make trades with and merely thought I would ask.

If your language does not have a word for female colleague, does this not affect the way you view a female colleague?

Merci pour cet article, j attends la suite avec impatience

berrada mohammed ali says:

The relationship between thought and language, has been discussed long ago by Gottfried Leibniz in the 17 century; in his essay ” an anticipated thought about the German language and Identity of Society”. It is an evidence that since language is an essential element of culture; and culture is the way we act, including the way we see the world around us, therefore language and thought are interrelated. Isn’t it?

Jalen says:

Hi,So I’ve watched a japanese tv show about a young woman teacher who teaches the japanese language to a group of students. This group is almost all foreigners (gaijin). This show is a comedy, they always ask question about the language making the language seems so hard. But the main caracter is the woman teacher. The problem is a don’t know what is the title of this show anymore! I’ve whatched this show on yohtebu.Tuank you for you help!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *