How Does Language Shape the Way We Think? Cognitive Scientist Lera Boroditsky Explains

Imag­ine a jel­ly­fish waltz­ing in a library while think­ing about quan­tum mechan­ics. “If every­thing has gone rel­a­tive­ly well in your life so far,” cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Lera Borodit­sky says in the TED Talk above, “you prob­a­bly haven’t had that thought before.” But now you have, all thanks to lan­guage, the remark­able abil­i­ty by which “we humans are able to trans­mit our ideas across vast reach­es of space and time” and “knowl­edge across minds.”

Though we occa­sion­al­ly hear about star­tling rates of lan­guage extinc­tion — Borodit­sky quotes some esti­mates as pre­dict­ing half the world’s lan­guages gone in the next cen­tu­ry — a great vari­ety still thrive. Does that mean we have an equal vari­ety of essen­tial­ly dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing? In both this talk and an essay for, Borodit­sky presents intrigu­ing pieces of evi­dence that what lan­guage we speak does affect the way we con­ceive of the world and our ideas about it. These include an Abo­rig­i­nal tribe in Aus­tralia who always and every­where use car­di­nal direc­tions to describe space (“Oh, there’s an ant on your south­west leg”) and the dif­fer­ences in how lan­guages label the col­or spec­trum.

“Russ­ian speak­ers have to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between light blue, gol­uboy, and dark blue, siniy,” says the Belarus-born, Amer­i­can-raised Borodit­sky. “When we test peo­ple’s abil­i­ty to per­cep­tu­al­ly dis­crim­i­nate these col­ors, what we find is that Russ­ian speak­ers are faster across this lin­guis­tic bound­ary. They’re faster to be able to tell the dif­fer­ence between a light and dark blue.” Hard­ly a yawn­ing cog­ni­tive gap, you might think, but just imag­ine how many such dif­fer­ences exist between lan­guages, and how the habits of mind they shape poten­tial­ly add up.

“You don’t even need to go into the lab to see these effects of lan­guage; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery,” writes Borodit­sky in her Edge essay. “How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be paint­ed as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 per­cent of such per­son­i­fi­ca­tions, whether a male or female fig­ure is cho­sen is pre­dict­ed by the gram­mat­i­cal gen­der of the word in the artist’s native lan­guage.” More Ger­mans paint death as a man, and more Rus­sians paint it as a woman. Per­son­al­ly, I’d like to see all the var­i­ous ways artists speak­ing all the world’s lan­guages paint that waltz­ing jel­ly­fish think­ing about quan­tum mechan­ics in the library. We’d bet­ter hur­ry com­mis­sion­ing them, though, before too many more of those lan­guages van­ish.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn 40+ Lan­guages for Free: Span­ish, Eng­lish, Chi­nese & More

A Col­or­ful Map Visu­al­izes the Lex­i­cal Dis­tances Between Europe’s Lan­guages: 54 Lan­guages Spo­ken by 670 Mil­lion Peo­ple

How Lan­guages Evolve: Explained in a Win­ning TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

Steven Pinker Explains the Neu­ro­science of Swear­ing (NSFW)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • Eidola says:

    Oth­er words for shades of blue present in the Eng­lish lan­guage, cour­tesy of Wikipedia:

    Azure, Celeste, Cyan, Den­im, Glau­cous, Indi­go, Iris, Sap­phire, Teal, Turquoise, Ultra­ma­rine, Virid­i­an, Zaf­fre.

    This is not count­ing those oth­er shades that still con­tain the word ‘blue,’ such as ‘Deep sky blue, Cam­bridge Blue, Car­oli­na Blue, Egypt­ian Blue, Majorelle Blue,’ and so forth.

    A painter would see more shades of colour than any Russ­ian, even if he were to lim­it him­self to his own lan­guage. To change the way one sees the world, it is enough to go out and dis­cov­er it, regard­less of the lan­guage one might use from day to day. Lan­guage does not shape thought, but the world we see and the ideas we pic­ture in the mind deter­mine the words we might use.

  • mike overly says:

    I agree, thoughts shape lan­guage ~ just ask Wittgen­stein.

  • Mike Overly says:

    I agree, thoughts shape lan­guage, just ask Wittgen­stein.

  • Stephen Hood says:

    She’s not say­ing lan­guage whol­ly deter­mines thought, nor is she say­ing it whol­ly deter­mines sense expe­ri­ence; she’s say­ing lan­guage shapes thought, it col­ors it, it influ­ences it, and it cer­tain­ly orga­nizes it. Deprive a per­son of nur­tur­ing lan­guage or lan­guage alto­geth­er, and he or she will have a very dif­fer­ent struc­ture of thought. Even the use of a pro­fes­sion­al jar­gon, such as among med­ical stu­dents or Wall Street traders, shapes the speak­ers’ think­ing and thus their behav­ior. The either-or approach to the ques­tion of lan­guage and thought is mis­guid­ed. Say­ing lan­guage shapes thought does­n’t mean thought has no influ­ence on lan­guage (which is absurd). If a teenag­er is repeat­ed­ly told he’s a worth­less idiot who will nev­er amount to any­thing, odds are pret­ty high he’ll inter­nal­ize that and lack ambi­tion his whole life … unless, of course, he quite delib­er­ate­ly changes the script in his head.

  • Tanya Qin says:

    All the words you have list­ed are actu­al­ly not Eng­lish words at all but are bor­rowed from oth­er lan­guages.

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