Whorfian Wardrobe Malfunction

by Translation Guy on August 4, 2010

Does the language you speak change the way you think? If it does, how would you know? We already know that most people speak first and think later. But Stanford University cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky’s research is revealing that it’s even worse than that.

New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world.

“The idea that language might shape thought was for a long time considered untestable at best and more often simply crazy and wrong. Now, a flurry of new cognitive science research is showing that in fact, language does profoundly influence how we see the world.

“The question of whether languages shape the way we think goes back centuries…. but the idea went out of favor with scientists when…. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages, [so] because languages didn’t differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking.”

I’m talking wardrobe malfunction here. Funny how it always comes back to stuff like this… So the scientists take Janet Jackson’s notorious Super Bowl performance and show the footage to participants with two identical reports with just the last sentence changed. One group of participants reads the phrase “ripped the costume,” while the other reads “the costume ripped.”

Even though everyone saw Justin Timberlake make the same move on Janet, language mattered. “Not only did people who read ‘ripped the costume’ blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.”

“Of course, just because people talk differently doesn’t necessarily mean they think differently. In the past decade, cognitive scientists have begun to measure not just how people talk, but also how they think, asking whether our understanding of even such fundamental domains of experience as space, time and causality could be constructed by language.”

Boroditsky’s own research points out how different cultures view directions differently. About a third of the world’s languages rely on absolute directions such as north and south, while the majority of languages, including English, use relative directions such as left and right.

As a result, people who speak this way are always oriented and keeping track of where they are. Even though I speak English, I was raised this way so that I could follow the sun or a compass in the woods. It was something I was expected to learn and is the way I talk to my brothers. My wife and daughter? Not a clue.

It’s like you and blue. I mean, unless you speak Russian. Russian speakers have more words for shades of blue and so see more shades.

All this new research shows us that the language does more than simply reflect or express our thoughts, but also shapes the very thoughts we think.

Mark Lieberman over at Language Log is sceptical. “There is probably no single linguistic idea that is more prone to exaggeration and mis-application than the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ about the relations between language and thought.”

I’m sure lots of you bilingual types have had some cool cognitive dissonance caused by language.


  1. Oh I remember when that happened… Poor Janet

  2. Jeff Spanke says:

    To some extent, it’s a chicken-and-egg question: Are you unable to think about things you don’t have words for, or do you lack words for them because you don’t think about them?

  3. “Anything that stimulates the brain to think.” Also, watch less television, because your brain goes into neutral…

  4. Learning another language won’t change the way you think, but if the new language is very different from your own, it may give you some insight into another culture and another way of life.

  5. Spanke says:

    These results are published in Psychological Science , a journal of the Association for Psychological Science., just incase anyone is interested in the source

  6. I think there is a degree of “anonymity” when we are speaking another language. We are able to step outside of ourselves a bit…

  7. Alex May says:

    Tough to say. Part of the problem is that there is more involved than just language and thought; there is also culture. Your culture—the traditions, lifestyle, habits, and so on that you pick up from the people you live and interact with—shapes the way you think, and also shapes the way you talk.

  8. Paige Chen says:

    I myself when trying to speak another language feel like I’m not myself because I’m at such a beginner level with any language besides English. I feel like I’m a little kid trying to learn English all over again. As for what cultural implications come with certain languages, I have never thought of that angle before. But now when I’m looking at an ad I will look into them a little more closely to see what my perception is. I have to think that all of this is excercising those brain musclkes though!

  9. Boom Boom says:

    Hmmm…well my old partner at work used to tease me and said my voice goes to a “little girl voice” when I speak Spanish. Weird…

    • Ken says:

      There are a lot of languages where women adopt a higher register in their speech. It can sound strange in languages that don’t. Languages that show up on your doorstep are always loaded down with cultural baggage, as Alex suggests in his post.

  10. Steve says:

    I rarely use foul language, but when I lived in South America, I would make the Colombians blush when I occasionally cursed like a fishwife! They sound so funny, cute and harmless in another language, because I don’t have ownership of them. After a couple of whoppers, I tried to tone it down a bit. I didn’t want my friends to get the wrong impression. They found it pretty funny, thankfully…phew…

  11. Phies says:

    It’s funny. I am shy in Arabic, lol. In English, I feel free. Maybe when you learn people’s language, you also learn their way in how to deal in situations. Speaking English makes me more social and crazier, lol, otherwise I would never kiss a bear and hold a chimpanzee. Funny, isn’t it?

    But when I speak animal’s language, I am not shy at all, lol. I become very crazy and brave. That’s the hardest language you can ever learn, animal’s language.

  12. Eric Steele says:

    Definetly I feel as a different person and think differently. It is not only the switching from one language to another, you also change the movements, the way you express things, the intonation, etc. And more than that, when you are originally from somewhere and you go abroad, then you are more free, like you start from zero because, depending on the case, it could be that nobody knows you and you are allowed, and people accept it, even they like it sometimes, to make mistakes. The more you know a language the more you are in a borderline between two cultures, not only between two languages.

  13. Sergeant says:

    Yes, I have always noticed that I think differently when I speak French, German and English – my first language. Not massively different – just a slightly different version of myself. I think this only happens when you become fluent. Language contains and transmits culture so in order to fit in you change.

    I am just beginning to learn Italian so am wondering what I will be like?!

  14. Ron Barak says:

    I have a pet theory that developed in the last decades: the way mother-tongue grammar behaves shapes the national character of its speakers.

    For instance, German puts all the verbs at the end of the sentence, so one needs to form the whole sentence in one’s head before speaking it. And the Germans are very good orgenisers and planner-ahead.

    Hebrew sentences may be constructed “on the fly”: Israelis are good at giving ad-hoc solutions to problems, not so good as long-term planning.

    Would you mind letting me know what _your_ language grammar’s demands are, and how it influences (if it does) the national psych, so I could see if my theory holds water.

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