How Language Affects Thinking

Lin­guist­ic relativ­ity is the idea that lan­guage dif­fer­ences alone can affect how we per­ceive world exper­i­ences and thus can cause us to behave dif­fer­ently.

In an Edge essay, Lera Borod­it­sky dis­cusses some of her research into lin­guist­ic relativ­ity and how lan­guage use (gram­mar, word choice and lan­guage itself) vastly alters our per­cep­tions and thought pro­cesses, offer­ing some inter­est­ing examples.

Even basic aspects of time per­cep­tion can be affected by lan­guage. For example, Eng­lish speak­ers prefer to talk about dur­a­tion in terms of length (e.g., “That was a short talk,” “The meet­ing did­n’t take long”), while Span­ish and Greek speak­ers prefer to talk about time in terms of amount, rely­ing more on words like “much” “big”, and “little” rather than “short” and “long” Our research into such basic cog­nit­ive abil­it­ies as estim­at­ing dur­a­tion shows that speak­ers of dif­fer­ent lan­guages dif­fer in ways pre­dicted by the pat­terns of meta­phors in their lan­guage. (For example, when asked to estim­ate dur­a­tion, Eng­lish speak­ers are more likely to be con­fused by dis­tance inform­a­tion, estim­at­ing that a line of great­er length remains on the test screen for a longer peri­od of time, where­as Greek speak­ers are more likely to be con­fused by amount, estim­at­ing that a con­tain­er that is fuller remains longer on the screen.)

via Mind Hacks

7 thoughts on “How Language Affects Thinking

  1. Devan

    I pos­ted a piece recently not­ing that there’s cur­rently no word in Eng­lish that means the oppos­ite of “dense” (as in lead). I won­der how the spec­trum of dens­ity not hav­ing a word for its low end affects our under­stand­ing of the phys­ic­al world.

    Anec­dot­ally, I can say that most people I asked about the oppos­ite of “dense” said that “light” was the word. But of course, some­thing can be both light and dense, if it’s very small, or both heavy and not-dense (i.e, both heavy and “light,” on this strange usage), if it’s very large.

    Does this mean that people some­how intu­it that not-dense objects are auto­mat­ic­ally also not-heavy? Or that we don’t deeply under­stand why that sec­tion of lead pipe feels so heavy? I think it might, unfor­tu­nately.

    (See for the post I men­tioned, which also looks into the his­tory of Eng­lish to find a bet­ter word to use that “light” or “not-dense.”)

  2. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    I like these thoughts, Devan.

    I always for­get how power­ful lan­guage is when it comes to man­aging pre­con­cep­tions and bias. It’s almost as if we have no power over many of them simply due to the lack of vocab­u­lary.

    There’s a study I read a while back that dis­cusses some­thing sim­il­ar and I’m going to search it out. If I find it I’ll either update here, or post it.

  3. fumio

    The oppos­ite of dense is smart, duh!

    Just kid­ding. I nev­er real­ized that there was no word to describe the oppos­ite of dense. That’s really intriguing imo. The closest I got to find­ing such a word was sparse and “fluffy” because I imme­di­ately attrib­uted non-dense­ness to marsh­mal­lows and whipped cream (cute amiryte?)

    “The lim­its of my lan­guage mean the lim­its of my world”
    – Lud­wig Wit­tgen­stein

  4. Pingback: Does language affect how you think? Language Relativity « Brain hungry! Feed me! Entertain me!

  5. Anonymous

    How about the word ‘lite’? Accord­ing to Cham­bers ’ low in weight, amount or dens­ity’…

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