Does language shape culture?

Cultural Insights — By on August 11, 2010 at 1:31 pm
Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel painting.

Or, as this fascinating Wall Street Journal article phrases the topic:

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?

It’s an interesting question. Even more interesting, though, is the answer. Yes. Apparently, language not only expresses our views, but also helps to shape our very thoughts:

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.

The full WSJ story, which was written by Stanford professor Lera Boroditsky, has numerous examples of language’s influence on thought and culture. Here is one such case in point:

In Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don’t use terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, “There’s an ant on your southwest leg.” …

So if Pormpuraawans think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world’s languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.

I find stuff like this utterly fascinating. Just another example of how we’re all silently shaped by the culture into which we are born. Check out the full article online.

Photo credit: Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

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