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.