Does Language Shape Culture?

New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world. Lera Boroditsky reports for the Wall Street Journal:

Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?

Take “Humpty Dumpty sat on a…” Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say “sat” rather than “sit.” In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can’t) change the verb to mark tense.

In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall.

In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you’d use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you’d use a different form.

Do English, Indonesian, Russian and Turkish speakers end up attending to, understanding, and remembering their experiences differently simply because they speak different languages?

These questions touch on all the major controversies in the study of mind, with important implications for politics, law and religion. Yet very little empirical work had been done on these questions until recently. 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…

[continues in the Wall Street Journal]

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  • http://blog.trwolfe.com T.R. Wolfe

    Robert Anton Wilson talked a lot about this, using the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a backdrop. It's good to see it's getting even more credible.

    • Erebhir

      Headline should have been “Wall Street Journal Finally Discovers General Semantics.”

      • http://blog.trwolfe.com T.R. Wolfe

        Exactly, I believe it's in Quantum Psychology, Wilson actually adds Korzybski's name to Sapir-Whorf.

  • Yalor

    Interesting. I've had similar thoughts, about language and culture. For instance, how would being a Latino/a, Portugese speaker and resident of São Paulo, Brasil, affect how you see the world, compared to someone from a Celtic background, English speaker, from St. Louis, Missouri. How much do each of those aspects affect their view of the world/”reality”?

  • Hadrian999

    language shapes everything, just look at the terms freedom fighter and terrorist or reformer and radical.
    what you call something has an impact on how people feel about it even if the descriptions basically mean the same thing the emotional baggage and cultural history of the words have more to do with their effect than the actual meaning. language defines perception and perception is reality.

  • fuzzgun

    This and more in Disinfo's new “Big Book of Really Obvious Stuff”.

  • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

    Whoa…is WSJ suddenly grasping why Wittgenstein was yanking his hair out in frustration?

  • Mwah Cookie

    Language shapes more than just the way we think. It’s our entire existence. We live completely and totally inside language, it’s a meta meme, a place where all other memes exist, If we see something, think something, do something, it gets conceptualized as language before anything else.

  • Mwah Cookie

    Language shapes more than just the way we think. It's our entire existence. We live completely and totally inside language, it's a meta meme, a place where all other memes exist, If we see something, think something, do something, it gets conceptualized as language before anything else.