How Language Shapes Thought
In the new issue of Scientific American, cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky has an article titled “How Language Shapes Thought: The languages we speak affect our perceptions of the world.”
Here are the main points, in brief:
1. People communicate using a multitude of languages that vary considerably in the information they convey.
2. Scholars have long wondered whether different languages might impart different cognitive abilities.
3. In recent years empirical evidence for this causal relation has emerged, indicating that one’s mother tongue does indeed mold the way one thinks about many aspects of the world, including space and time.
4. The latest findings also hint that language is part and parcel of many more aspects of thought than scientists had previously realized.
This is the sort of thing that has long been a part of discussions and arguments in philosophy, art, and cultural studies, and is part of the narrative of A Clockwork Orange and 1984. Change the language and you change the people. Take away the words and the thoughts disappear.
Now, of course, Boroditsky isn’t going that far with the idea, but the few research examples she describes do have larger implications, even if more subtle than the famous dystopias above.
For me, this comes back to art, specifically, poetry. Surprise surprise. But here’s the dilemma: If the poet, say, feels that the role of the poet is to reveal something about reality in the “Thing Itself” fashion, the “direct treatment of the thing” fashion, then how is that to be done when the language that that poet is using is a partial creator of the reality that the poet is experiencing?
Bruce Andrews: There is no “direct treatment” of the thing possible, except of the “things” of language.
Well, it turns out that direct treatment of the things of language is, at least in part, a direct treatment of the things of reality anyway, so where are we again?
At the simple level of communication, we have this problem, too. What we think others are understanding in what we’re saying is highly speculative. We know all this, yes. But what does that do to “clarity” in poetry? What “clarity” in poetry deals with is the social sphere of a group sharing a common perception of reality. That common perception is languaged, and extends out past language itself into depictions that are visual and experiential. What we experience is what we’re conditioned to experience by the frame of reference we were brought to through language.
All is not hopeless, thankfully. This is a tendency problem, not an absolute problem. Some language groups think the future is in front of them and some think it’s behind them. Some have no words for numbers. Some have no words for right and left. The right and left example is especially interesting, here’s Boroditsky:
“I am standing next to a five-year old girl in pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia. When I ask her to point north, she points precisely and without hesitation. My compass says she is right. Later, back in a lecture hall at Stanford University, I make the same request of an audience of distinguished scholars—winners of science medals and genius prizes. Some of them have come to this very room to hear lectures for more than 40 years. I ask them to close their eyes (so they don’t cheat) and point north. Many refuse; they do not know the answer. Those who do point take a while to think about it and then aim in all possible directions. I have repeated this exercise at Harvard and Princeton and in Moscow, London and Beijing, always with the same results.
A five-year-old in one culture can do something with ease that eminent scientists in other cultures struggle with. This is a big difference in cognitive ability.”
Turns out that ability is that in her language one can only orient oneself in relation to North South East West. Relative spatial terms (right and left) don’t exist. So people in that group become exceptionally good at orienting themselves in space, even in unfamiliar spaces, in ways that cognitive scientists didn’t think humans could manage.
“The past decade has seen a host of ingenious demonstrations establishing that language indeed plays a causal role in shaping cognition. Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think. Teaching people new color words, for instance, changes their ability to discriminate colors. And teaching people a new way of talking about time gives them a new way of thinking about it.”
Extending that idea into the arts gives credence to the fight over reality that is common in aesthetic battles. How different ways of saying things are, literally, different ways of seeing. And there’s a politics at play in which way you choose to say things, not just in what you’re saying. We’ve said this sort of thing many times. The idea, as Boroditsky reminds us, goes back centuries. And we will continue to say such things. It’s just that now we’ve a little more empirical evidence to back us up.