Does language limit our thoughts?

Does language limit our thoughts?
Does language limit our thoughts?

Do the languages we speak influence our thought processes? Does language simply convey thought, or do the structures in languages subconsciously sculpt the ideas and thoughts we wish to convey?

For example, the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty,” divulges the extent of which languages can differ from one another.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s  horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

In the English language, there is the verb tense to consider; in Humpty Dumpty’s case, we use “sat” instead of “sit.” In Indonesian, one cannot change the verb tense. In contrast, the Russian language not only considers verb tense but also gender, meaning the verb would change if it were Ms. Dumpty sitting. In addition, one must decide whether the action of sitting had been complete, or was still being performed. If the beloved egg sat on the wall for the duration of the nursery rhyme, the verb would take on the different form than if, perhaps, he had taken a great fall.

Had this taken place in Turkey, it must be determined in which way this information had been acquired before deciding on a verb form. For example, if one had witnessed Mr. Dumpty perched on the wall,  one form of the verb would be used, but if one had heard about it second-hand, a different form would be employed.

It follows then, that one must ask whether the speakers of the aforementioned languages relate to, comprehend and remember their experiences in a different manner because they speak a different language.

The notion that language could be capable of shaping thought is revolutionary. For many years it was deemed impossible to test and wrong and crazy. Recently, a burst of fresh scientific research proves that language does greatly influence the way in which the world is seen and experienced.

Let’s discuss some examples of how Language Influences Thinking:

  • The Russian language has numerous more words for shades of blue, which enables its speakers to better visualize and distinguish the various hues.
  • Some ethnic tribes use the directions, north, south, east and west instead of right and left, which affords them a greater spatial orientation.
  • The Piraha, a tribe of Amazon natives, avoid numeral references in their language, in favor of expressions such as few and many easily lose track of precise amounts.
  • One study showed that speakers of Spanish and Japanese could not remember the causes of accidental incidents as proficiently as English speakers could. In these languages, the cause of the fate is negated: “The glass broke itself,” instead of “Linda broke the vase.”
  • etc.

Certainly, just because people speak differently does not mean that they think differently, as well. Over the past ten years, cognitive scientists have begun to evaluate not only peoples’ speech but also the various thought processes, inquiring as to whether our comprehension of such basic fields as space, time and causation could be structured by language.

Case in point, in Pormpuraaw, an isolated Aboriginal commune in Australia, whose native languages employ a similar linguistic system in that everything, is discussed in terms of direction. It is not uncommon to hear statements like “There’s a spider on your northeast arm.”  Further, to greet someone in Pormpuraaw, one would ask, “Where are you going?”  A fitting reply might be, “A short way to the north-northwest. And you?” If one does not know his or her directions, one literally will not get past hello.


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