How Does Language Shape Our Thoughts?

by | Nov 8, 2019


We think largely in words. This leads to an interesting question: do people who speak different languages think differently?

A great example of how differences in structure of language may impact thought is the comparison of Turkish vs. English past tense. In Turkish use of past tense must indicate whether events were witnessed or not witnessed. Here’s an explanation:

In English it is necessary to mark the verb to indicate the time of occurrence of an event you are speaking about: It’s raining; It rained; and so forth. In Turkish, however, it is impossible to simply say, ‘It rained last night’. This language, like many American Indian languages, has more than one past tense, depending on one’s source of knowledge of the event. In Turkish, there are two past tenses—one to report direct experience and the other to report events that you know about only by inference or hearsay. Thus, if you were out in the rain last night, you will say, ‘It rained last night’ using the past-tense form that indicates that you were a witness to the rain; but if you wake up in the morning and see the wet street and garden, you are obliged to use the other past-tense form—the one that indicates that you were not a witness to the rain itself.

Source: Linguistic Society of America

Based on the differences of how Turks vs. Americans describe past events one might expect a Turk to be more attuned the evidence of past events than an English Speaker.

Another example of how language may impact perspective relates to whether words are gender specific. Here’s an example:

Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.


So, do speakers of English view the world differently or act differently than speakers of other languages due to the gendering of words? Likely so.

When your language forces you to focus on particular aspects of the world in common speaking it likely causes at least a slight difference in perspective. In English we refer to males as “Mr.” regardless of marital status. Females can be “Miss”, “Ms.” or “Mrs.” depending on age or marital status. Thus, to address a female we have to pause and make a conscious decision. We make a judgment about marital status based on cues as well as age. This difference between addressing males and females encourages a different way of thinking about the marital status of people of different genders.

Linguistic Relativity

There are numerous hypotheses about how language influences thought. A strong view is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which holds that differences in language cause in differences in thought. The basis for the hypothesis is explained by linguist Benjamin Whorf as follows:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages . . . the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.

This view of language and thought makes intuitive sense, but has been shown to be too strong of a concept. Research has found that while language can influence thought, most concepts are independent of language. There are many factors which affect how we think and language is just one of many.

The prevailing view tends to embrace a weaker version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Under this weaker version linguistic categories only influence our thought. A way to think about the difference between the strong and weak versions of the hypothesis is whether language is tightly or loosely bound to our thinking. Under the strong view language is tightly coupled to our thinking while under the weak version language and thinking is loosely associated. Rather than language shaping our thoughts, our views of the world are primarily shaped by what we experience. Thus, language we use can affect how we think, but is not the primary driver of our world view. Here’s a helpful chart from linguists from Colorado College showing the discredited strong version and the accepted weak version:

In the above diagram the dotted line represents a loose coupling while the solid line represents a tight coupling.

Some interesting experiments elucidate this concept:

  • Color. In English we have 11 basic color terms (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, grey, black and white). Other languages often have greater or fewer basic color terms. Studies have found that our ability to distinguish between colors and our recollection of colors is impacted by whether we have a word for the color in question. People’s whose language only contains the color words “black” and “white” still perceive colors, but don’t distinguish between colors or remember colors to as great a degree as speakers of languages with more basic color terms.
  • Genders. In many languages inanimate objects are referred to in the masculine or feminine. An interesting area of study is where one language refers to an object as masculine and another language refers to it as feminine. How does the gendering of these objects affect the speaker’s perception? A 2002 study examined perceptions of 24 objects that had opposite genders in German and Spanish and found that the gender of the objects affected their perceptions of those objects. For example, a bridge is feminine in German but is masculine in Spanish. “German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, strong, sturdy, and towering.” Source.
  • Spatial Relations. Languages can differ in how they describe the space around us. For example, the way we give directions or describe space in English is “egocentric” – its in relation to us. When giving directions we say “take a right at the second light” and we think of the “left side of the plane.” In some other languages space is described in “geographic” terms or in relation to the broader world. In those languages, references to space are primarily “north, south, east and west.” Thus, you might say “your south shoulder” or “the chair at the east end of the table.” Directions might be “travel east and then turn north.” Thus, in order to speak geographic-centric languages you have to know where you are with respect to the compass points at all times. Being constantly aware of the compass directions is a different way of seeing and relating to the world than what we English speakers experience.

Thus, the prevailing view of language and thought is that while language does affect our view of the world, it’s a weak factor. We mainly create our world view through our experiences. Language doesn’t determine our thoughts, but it does have an effect at the margins; it can influence how we perceive reality.

Related IFOD: How many languages are spoken in the world? (hint: its a lot more than you probably think)

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting thank you. Regarding spatial relations, you got me thinking about an English non-egocentric lexicon in common use — by those of us who mess about in boats. Starboard is always starboard, no matter which way the speaker is facing – it’s on the right only if you face the bow. Likewise port, fore and aft. Also windward and leeward. The direction of travel in open water is always given by compass heading or in relation to the wind, e.g., “Bear off 20 degrees.” I imagine that’s because crew can be facing any direction and there are no fixed points of reference, egocentric direction-giving would be hopeless. In an airplane it’s different. Pilots refer to left and right (e.g., “More left rudder!”) – I presume because they face forward and don’t move about much. ATC might say, “Fly heading two-two-zero,” or they might say, “Turn left two-zero degrees.”

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