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A Way with Words

Do languages help mold the way we think?
A controversial idea from the 1930s is getting a second look.

By JR Minkel


AVALANCHE of Eskimo words for snow is not so overwhelming as you might have heard. Click here for the cold reality.

The way you speak says a lot about you. Your dialect or accent might indicate where you grew up, for instance, while your vocabulary may suggest the type of education you've had. But can the language you use--English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.--indicate the way you think, or help shape those thoughts?

In the 1930s, American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued persuasively that language did indeed affect thought. For instance, Eskimos, who parse "snow" into at least seven different terms, must find our simplistic way of talking about it unthinkable, he suggested [see "Snow by Any Other Name"]. While Whorf's views fell out of favor--especially that native language created what amounts to a straitjacket for thought-they weren't forgotten. Now a group of cognitive psychologists has revived the search for the effects of language on the mind, with some provocative results.

Researchers first sought out Whorfian effects in the 1950s, looking at color vocabularies. Some languages chop the spectrum into just two categories of light and dark; others make finer, but not necessarily the same, distinctions. Do these linguistic patterns mean that speakers of separate languages perceive color in different ways? Apparently not. By the 1970s, psychologists concluded that linguistic and perceptual distinctions were independent of one another.

The conclusion stuck. Linguists were and remain convinced by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who discovered that however disparate human languages seem, all share a common, basic structure, seemingly hardwired into the brain. They reasoned this wiring would control the grammar of speech, but was separate from other parts of the brain, such as those that governed perception or cognition in general--making it hard for language to have an effect on the latter. At the same time, cognitive psychologists began to think that words just name concepts, which come first to the mind. "For a bunch of reasons, the Whorfian hypothesis became more than neglected--it was sort of ridiculed," says Dedre Gentner of Northwestern University.

Seeds of the Whorfian Revival
Image: K. Leutwyler after Lera Boroditsky

EVEN TOASTERS have gender in our private thoughts, according to one study. Bilingual individuals shown pictures of objects and people rated the objects more similar (on a scale of one to four) to girls, ballerinas and other inherently feminine words if the objects were grammatically feminine in their native language. So too, they found objects more similar to inherently masculine words if the object names were masculine.

Then in the 1980s, some researchers started to point out problems with the earlier work. For one, some noted that color perception is probably too biologically ingrained to show influence from language. Further, the results were linguistically biased, says John Lucy of the University of Chicago, who helped usher in the Whorfian renaissance during the early 1990s. Researchers assumed that speakers of other languages describe color the same way as English speakers just because their words matched up with color samples, ignoring subtle linguistic differences. In doing so, "basically you're sifting all the data according to your own preconceptions," Lucy says. So their tests could never have found the language effects they sought.

Looking for a better way to compare thoughts among language groups, Lucy studied the small group of Yucatec Mayans living in Mexico. English speakers tend to consider the shape or unit of a noun when talking. Living things or objects with a well-defined shape have their unit built into the word. We may talk about multiple "chairs," because they all come in chair-shaped units. But sugar is "sugar," whether it's one lump or two. Mayan speakers, on the other hand, do not refer to objects in plural form, so shape and unit are less ingrained into their speech. Accordingly, their language revolves more around what objects are made of than English; a "candle" to English speakers is a "long, thin wax" to Mayans.

To see if the thought and speech patterns of the two groups coincided, Lucy presented individuals with an object such as a comb or box. He asked study subjects to decide which of two other objects was more similar--one with the same shape but made of a different material or vice versa. The groups' preferences split along linguistic lines. English speakers fancied shape; Mayans liked material. Lucy and a coworker then found that Mayan children shared the English predilection for shape until age seven or so, but turned toward material by age nine. This cognitive difference appeared after the children had acquired language, suggesting that their thought patterns diverged as they acclimated to their way of speaking.

Studies of Bilinguals
grammar chart
K. Leutwyler after Lera Boroditsky

GRAMMATICAL GENDER--whether a noun is considered masculine, feminine or neutral--may influence the way we think about objects. Consider the English words that bilingual study participants used to describe a key. Subjects who spoke German, in which "key" is masculine, chose more masculine terms, as judged by outside observers. Subjects who spoke Spanish, in which "key" is feminine, used more feminine terms.

Studying individuals who speak only one language can still leave research open to criticism, says Lera Boroditsky of MIT, a Whorf sympathizer. To give two different-language groups the same test, you have to translate it. "But once you've translated the test, you no longer know if you've got the same test," Boroditsky explains. So she has focused on bilinguals. One study involved native German and Spanish speakers who also spoke English. Boroditsky and a colleague asked the study subjects to describe, in English, objects that were grammatically masculine or feminine in their native tongues. "Key," for instance, is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. The native German speakers called keys "hard," "heavy," "jagged," etc., whereas the Spanish used words such as "lovely," "shiny" and "tiny." Native English speakers showed similar patterns after they learned the grammar system of a made-up language. In other words, just a brief change in the way people talk can create a measurable effect, Boroditsky says.

She next examined how English speakers compared with Mandarin-English bilinguals in thinking about time. English speakers tend to talk about time in terms of horizontal dimensions: for example, the meeting was moved "forward" or "back." In Mandarin, however, next month is "down" the calendar and last month is "up." As you might expect would be the case if the two groups think about time differently, the bilinguals figured out if one event preceded another faster after concentrating on a vertical stimulus, and the English-only group benefited from horizontal cues. Moreover, those in the Mandarin group who learned English later in life tended to have a stronger vertical bias. Indicating that it wasn't necessarily the Mandarin convention of writing vertically that caused the effect, English speakers trained briefly to talk about time using vertical metaphors showed more Mandarin-like results on the same tests. "That's a really powerful effect of language on thought," Boroditsky concludes, and one that shows how flexible our minds are.

Maybe language itself gives us some of this flexibility, says Gentner, particularly when it comes to grasping relationships. She and a colleague tested three- to four-year-old kids with a hide-and-seek game that used two matching three-tiered shelves. On each tier was an identical plastic pig, and one of the pigs had a toy hidden inside. The child got to see where the winning pig was in one shelf. Then, to find the toy, he or she had to choose the pig in the same relative position in the other shelf--a challenging analogy for a child that age, Gentner notes. The kids often lost track of the winning position and searched randomly. When the test administrator started the game by naming the three locations--top, middle and bottom--the kids chose the correct location far more often, so the spatial terms helped them remember. For difficult problems, then, the proper use of language can invite us to think in a more productive way, Gentner says.

Unusual Grammar

What about children who never learn a language? Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago has studied deaf children who haven't yet learned sign language and who are brought up in English- or Mandarin-speaking environments. The children develop their own system of gestures with a grammar that is much different from their parents' language as well as from most other languages in the world. Surprisingly, when adults are talking, their gestures don't take on this rare pattern. But when forced not to talk and to communicate with their hands alone, the adults gesture just like the kids. So it seems that simply speaking a language like English hasn't prevented adults from thinking the way children do. Still, learning to do so could, in Whorfian fashion, make it harder for grown-ups to think that way, Goldin-Meadow notes.

Not everyone buys into the inferred direction of cause and effect in some of these studies. Lila Gleitman, for one, of the University of Pennsylvania, has argued strongly against the Whorfian revival. She and coworkers have found that speakers of languages with different ways of expressing orientation in space, as well as how people and objects move, seem to think alike if given the chance or the right cue. Language may have trivial effects on memory akin to speaking a phone number aloud as you go from Yellow Pages to phone, Gleitman adds. But the curious relationships between speaking and thinking exist, she says, because we devise language to express the thoughts we have about our culture, geography and so on. "People develop language that's useful given those circumstances. That's why you always find a tight relationship between language and thought."

Ultimately, there are so many ways of thinking about things, says Gentner, that language surely won't be found to influence all aspects of cognition. That doesn't bother her at all. "I'm just glad it's become an important topic again because I think it people gave up on it way too early."


Study Uncovers First Gene Associated with Language

Brief biography of Benjamin Lee Whorf

The Benjamin Lee Whorf Web site

A Pro-Whorf Web page

For a critical take on the Whorf idea, read chapter three of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct.