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.

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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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  • 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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