Language’s Influence on Culture

I’ve writ­ten before about Lera Borod­it­sky’s fas­cin­at­ing research into how lan­guage affects think­ing, and a recent art­icle by Borod­it­sky in The Wall Street Journ­al cov­ers sim­il­ar ground, ask­ing Does lan­guage influ­ence cul­ture?

The answer, it seems, is yes:

  • Rus­si­an speak­ers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are bet­ter able to visu­ally dis­crim­in­ate shades of blue.
  • Some indi­gen­ous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a con­sequence have great spa­tial ori­ent­a­tion.
  • The Piraha, whose lan­guage eschews num­ber words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quant­it­ies.
  • In one study, Span­ish and Japan­ese speak­ers could­n’t remem­ber the agents of acci­dent­al events as adeptly as Eng­lish speak­ers could. Why? In Span­ish and Japan­ese, the agent of caus­al­ity is dropped: [“The vase broke” or “The vase was broken”], rather than “John broke the vase.”

For some amaz­ing examples of these traits in prac­tice, the art­icle describes many stud­ies Borod­it­sky and her col­leagues con­duc­ted that will make you rethink how much of our cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences may be down to our dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

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