How Does the Language You Speak Influence the Way You Think?

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Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation. —Rumi

The ostensible purpose of language is to transmit thoughts from one mind to another. Language represents thought, but does it also determine thought?

Wittgenstein famously said that “the limits of my language stand for the limits of my world.” Taken at face value, that seems too strong a claim. There are over 7,000 languages in the world—with, by some estimates, one dying out each and every week. The number of basic colour terms varies quite considerably from one language to another. Dani, spoken in New Guinea, and Bassa, spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone, each have no more than two colour terms, one for dark/cool colours and the other for light/warm colours. But, obviously, speakers of Dani and Bassa are able to perceive, and think about, more than two colours.

More subtly, there is no English equivalent for the German word Sehnsucht, which refers to the dissatisfaction with an imperfect reality paired with the yearning for an ideal that comes to seem more real than the reality itself. But despite lacking the word, Walt Whitman could clearly conjure the concept and emotion: Is it a dream? Nay, but the lack of it the dream, And, failing it, life’s lore and wealth a dream, And all the world a dream.

The English language has a word for children who have lost their parents (orphan), and a word for spouses who have lost their spouse (widow or widower), but no word for parents who have lost a child. This may mean that parents who have lost a child are less likely to enter our minds, but not that they cannot enter our minds, or that we cannot conceive of them. We often think about or remember things that cannot be put into words, such as the smell and taste of a mango, the dawn chorus of the birds, or the contours of a lover’s face. Animals and pre-linguistic babies must surely have thoughts, even if they have no language.

Time heaved a gentle sigh as the wind swept through the willows. Communication does not require language, and many animals communicate effectively by other modes. However, language is closely associated with symbolism, and so with emotionalism and conceptual thought and creativity. These unique assets make us by far the most adaptable of all animals, and enable us to engage in highly abstract pursuits such as art, science, and philosophy that define us as human beings.

Imagine what it would be like to live without language—not without the ability to speak, but without an actual language. Given the choice, would you rather lose the faculty for sight or the faculty for language? This is probably the first time that you are faced with this question—the faculty for language is so fundamental to the human condition that, unlike the faculty for sight, we take it completely for granted. “Monkeys,” quipped Kenneth Grahame, “very sensibly refrain from speech, lest they should be set to earn their livings.”

If language does not determine thought, how, if at all, does it interact with thought? Or, to put it another way, how does the language you speak influence the way you think? Russian, Greek, and many other languages have two words for blue, one for lighter shades, the other for darker shades—goluboy and siniy in Russian, and ghalazio and ble in Greek. A study found that, compared to English speakers, Russian speakers were quicker to discriminate between shades of goluboy and siniy, but not shades of goluboy or shades of siniy. Conversely, another study found that Greek speakers who had lived for a long time in the U.K. see ghalazio and ble as more similar than Greek speakers living in Greece. By creating categories, language can enhance cognition.

In contrast to modern Greek, Ancient Greek, in common with many ancient languages, has no specific word for blue, leaving Homer to speak about “the wine-dark sea.” But the Ancient Greeks did have several words for ‘love’, including philia, eros, storge, and agape, each one referring to a different type or concept of love. This means that they could speak more precisely about love, but does it also mean that they could think more precisely about love, and, as a result, have more fulfilled love lives? Or perhaps the Greeks had more words for love because they had more fulfilled love lives in the first place, or, more prosaically, because their culture and society placed more emphasis on the different bonds that can exist between people, and on the various duties and expectations that attend, or attended, to those bonds.

Philosophers and academics sometimes make up words to help them talk and think about an issue. In the Phaedrus, Plato coined the word psychagogia, the art of leading souls, to characterize rhetoric—another word that he invented. Every field of human endeavour inevitably evolves its own specialized jargon. There seems to be an important relationship between language and thinking: I often speak—and write, as I am doing now—to define or refine my thinking on a particular topic, and language is the scaffolding by which I arrive at my more subtle or syncretic thoughts.

While we’re talking dead languages, it may come as a surprise that Latin has no direct translations for yes and no. Instead, one either echoes the verb in the question (in affirmative or negative) or expresses one’s feelings about the truth value of the proposition with adverbs such as certe, fortasse, nimirum, plane, vero, etiam, sane, minime…This may have led to more nuanced thinking, as well as greater interpersonal engagement, though it must have been a nightmare for teens.

Much of the particularity of a language is extra-lexical, built into the syntax and grammar of the language and virtually invisible to native speakers. English, for example, restricts the use of the present perfect tense (“has been,” “has read”) to subjects who are still alive, marking a sharp grammatical divide between the living and the dead, and, by extension, between life and death. But of course, as an English speaker, you already knew that, at least unconsciously.

Here’s another, more substantial, example: When describing accidental events, English speakers tend to emphasize the agent (“I fired the gun”) more than, say, speakers of Spanish or Japanese, who prefer to omit the agent (“the gun went off”). One study found that, as a result, English speakers are more likely to remember the agents of accidental events—and, presumably, to attach blame.

In English, verbs express tense, that is, time relative to the moment of speaking. In Turkish, they also express the source of the information (evidentiality)—whether the information is direct, acquired through sense perception; or indirect, acquired by testimony or inference. In Russian, they include information about completion, with (to simplify) the perfective aspect used for completed actions and the imperfective aspect for ongoing or habitual actions. Spanish, on the other hand, emphasizes modes of being, with two verbs for “to be”—ser, to indicate permanent or lasting attributes, and estar, to indicate temporary states and locations. Like many languages, Spanish has more than one mode of second-person address: for intimates and social inferiors, and usted for strangers and social superiors, equivalent to tu and vous in French, and tu and lei in Italian. There used to be a similar distinction in English, with thou used to express intimacy, familiarity, or downright rudeness—but because it is archaic, many people now think of it as more formal than “you.” It stands to reason that, compared to English speakers, Turkish speakers have to pay more attention to evidentiality, Russian speakers to completion, and Spanish speakers to modes of being and social relations.

In many languages, nouns are divided into masculine and feminine. In German, there is a third, neutral class of nouns. In Dyirbal, an Aboriginal language, there are four noun classes, including one for women, water, fire, violence, and exceptional animals—or, as George Lakoff put it, “women, fire, and dangerous things.” Researchers asked speakers of German and Spanish to describe objects with opposite gender assignments in these two languages, and found that their descriptions conformed to gender stereotypes—even when the testing took place in English. For example, German speakers described bridges (feminine in German, die Brücke) as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, whereas Spanish speakers described bridges (masculine in Spanish, el puente) as big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.

Another study looking at the artistic personification of abstract concepts such as love, justice, or time found that, in 78% of cases, the gender of the concept in the artist’s language predicted the gender of the personification, and that this pattern held even for uncommon allegories such as geometry, necessity, and silence. Compared to a French or Spanish artist, a German artist is far more likely to paint death (der Tod, la mort, la muerte) or victory (der Sieg, la victoire, la victoria) as a man—though all artists, or European artists, tend to paint death in skeletal form. Grammar, it seems, can directly and radically influence thought, perception, and action.

It is often said that, by de-emphasizing them, language perpetuates biases against women. For example, many writers in English still use “mankind” to talk about humankind, and “he” for “he or she.” Similarly, many languages use masculine plural pronouns to refer to groups of people with at least one man. If 100 women turn up with a baby in a pram, and that baby happens to be male, French grammar dictates the use of the masculine plural ils: ils sont arrivés, “they have arrived.” Language changes as mores change, and sometimes politicians, pressure groups, and others attempt to change the language to change the mores—but, on the whole, language serves to preserve the status quo, to crystallize the order and culture that it reflects.

Language is also made up of all sorts of metaphors. In English and Swedish, people tend to speak of time in terms of distance: “I won’t be long”; “Let’s look at the weather for the week ahead”; “his drinking caught up with him.” But in Spanish or Greek, people tend to speak of time in terms of size or volume—for example, in Spanish, hacemos una pequeña pausa (“let’s have a small break”) rather than corta pausa (“short break”). More generally, mucho tiempo (“much time”) is preferred to largo tiempo (“long time”), and, in Greek, poli ora to makry kroniko diastima. And guess what? According to a recent study of fully bilingual Spanish-Swedish speakers, the language used to estimate the duration of events alters the speaker’s perception of the relative passage of time.

But all in all, and with perhaps a couple of exceptions, European languages do not differ dramatically from one another. To talk about space, speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, an Aboriginal language, use 16 words for absolute cardinal directions instead of relative references such as “right in front of you,” “to the right,” and “over there.” As a result, even children are always aware of the exact direction in which they are facing. When asked to arrange a sequence of picture cards in temporal order, English speakers arrange the cards from left to right, whereas Hebrew speakers tend to arrange them from right to left. But speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre consistently arrange them from east to west, which is left to right if they are facing south, and right to left if they are facing north. Thinking differently about space, they think differently about time as well.

Language may not determine thought, but it focuses our perception and attention on particular aspects of reality, structures and enhances our cognitive processes, and even, to some extent, regulates our social relationships. Our language reflects and at the same time shapes our thoughts and, ultimately, our culture, which in turn shapes our thoughts and language. There is no equivalent in English of the Portuguese word saudade, which refers to the love and longing for someone or something that has been lost and may never be regained. The rise of saudade coincided with the decline of Portugal and the yen for its imperial heyday, a yen so strong as to have written itself into the national anthem: Levantai hoje de novo o splendour de Portugal (“Let us once again lift up the splendour of Portugal”). The three strands of language, thought, and culture, though individual, are so tightly woven that they cannot be prised apart.

It has been said that when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. But when a language dies, it is a whole world that comes to an end.

See my related post, Beyond Words: The Benefits of Being Bilingual


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