Language Shapes Thought

Stanford neuroscientist Lera Boroditsky passes along the consensus in her field that “people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.” She provides a fascinating example:

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.”

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English). Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space.

Via Norm Geras, who is “skeptical of the notion that all human awareness and perception is shaped by language” but thinks it “completely obvious that language must shape thought to some extent.”

The whole article is worth a read, as it provides several other examples including the many connotations of the verb “read,” for which other languages have multiple words to describe the degree to which one has engaged with the text.

Photo: The Guardian

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    There were studies done on this subject a half century ago or more. I’ve read them but it’s been more than 40 years so I don’t remember the authors or titles.

    Language doesn’t condition thought but it does make some things easier to say and think. People whose language doesn’t have a word for “red” can still see the color. However, having a word for something acts as a sort of hook for hanging ideas on. It makes it easier.

  2. interested says:

    Benjamin Whorf (from whom we get the name of the Star Trek character) and Edward Sapir discussed/researched this at length. the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis of Linguistic Relativity.

    I think the consensus isn’t so much that it “shapes” thought as much as it solidifies, over time, the neural channels associated with particular thought patterns with “view of world” analogs. The difference being that the brain of one language is still capable of rendering concepts of another language’s brain.

  3. John Burgess says:

    Fascinating article. Thanks for pulling it out.

    Interestingly, the Arabic words for left and right are also the words for south (yemeen, i.e. Yemen) and north (shamal, likely from Sham, i.e. Syria). This suggests the term came into use with an eastward orientation of whatever speaker(s) set the terms into Arabic grammar or lexicon.

    Geographically, east and west are based on the rising and setting of the sun.

  4. This is why you never see a Kuuk Thaayorre wandering around the Target parking lot muttering, “I know it’s around here somewhere.”

  5. Eric Florack says:

    Since languages evolve, I wonder about the reverse also being true… that the way people think tends to be reflected in changes in the language.

  6. Furhead says:

    Since languages evolve, I wonder about the reverse also being true… that the way people think tends to be reflected in changes in the language.

    To determine that, you would have to identify a way in which people think that has changed over time, and then see if there was a corresponding language time. A recent example that James has pointed out is how we access and process information now that we have the Internet – we tend to be better at finding and linking data rather than just memorizing it. One might ask how has this changed language, other than the fact that Google is a verb?

  7. Anderson says:

    Language Shapes Thought

    What’s sad is how rarely the reverse is true.

  8. G.A.Phillips says:

    What’s sad is how rarely the reverse is true.

    You mean good thought, right?
    Because bad thought does it all the time.