Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Whorfian Wardrobe Malfunction
August 4, 2010 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 16 comments

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.

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