This post was originally written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, a compulsory course on the BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science undergraduate programme at LSE. It has been published with the permission of the author.
How often have you found yourself talking to a foreign person and had the feeling that they could not fully understand you? I’m pretty sure that this has happened to most of you, and that would not be surprising. Indeed, there are around 7,000 languages currently spoken across the world that differ in sound, vocabulary, and structure (Boroditsky, 2018).
Believe it or not, this means that there are around 7,000 different ways of perceiving the world. This is because language influences the way we think about reality, as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states (Lucy, 1997).
Where am I?
You might be confused right now, so I’ll give you an example to help you understand. Take a look around for a moment. Would you be able to tell me where the nearest café is, using cardinal directions? I bet you don’t. Who would even be able to do such a task, you might think. Well…the Kuuk Thaayoreree aboriginal Australian community is (Boroditsky, 2018; Majid et al., 2004).
The reason for such a difference relies on the use in languages of “frames of reference” (Majid et al., 2004), which are coordinate systems used to specify the location of objects. There are three main types of FoR: relative or egocentric, intrinsic or object-centered, and absolute, which makes use of cardinal directions.
The latter is the only one used by the aboriginal community, since the word “left” and “right” do not exist in their dialect (Boroditsky, 2018). For them, the pen is not “to the left of the book”, it is “to the west of the book”. This language feature led to the development of an uncommon sense of orientation among the community (Majid et al., 2004), which would make it extremely easy for them to answer my initial question.
The world in warm and cool
So wait, does that mean that things don’t exist if we do not have a word to define them? No, don’t panic. Language influences our perception of the world, but it does not determine it (Wolff & Holmes, 2010). We can still see objects, we just… can’t call them by a name.
To illustrate this, I’ll present to you the Dani, a tribe from Highland New Guinea. Their language only has two terms to define colours: warm (mola) and cool (mili). Blue, green, purple are all the same “mili” color (Boroditsky, 2018). However, the Dani see the exact same colour spectrum as we do. They can visualize that the colour of the sky is different than that of the grass, they just call them equally. The colour spectrum is uniform and continuous, but our visual system perceives it as containing contours (Henrich, 2016). Such contours are influenced by our language and they can be tighter or looser depending on the size of our vocabulary (Henrich, 2016). For instance, the borders in English are tighter than in Dani but they are looser than in Russian, where “blue” and “light blue” have two distinct names (Boroditsky, 2018; Wolff & Holmes, 2010).
These different language structures shape our perception of the world in terms of the importance we attribute to colours and influence our culture. Language and culture, in fact, always go in hand in hand (Jiang, 2000). In western societies, for instance, colours are important. Think about how long it might take for a person to decide whether to buy a red or a yellow car. That doubt probably would not even exist among Dani. After all, they are both mola!
Gender differences also affect bridges
Our worldview can also be shaped by the grammatical structures of language (Samuel et al., 2019). How? Let me give you a quick task. Think about a bridge and picture it in your mind. Now answer this question: is the bridge more male or female? That is absurd, it is just a bridge! That’s what most native English speakers might be thinking. Now ask this question to a German and a Spanish person. You’ll find out that they will respectively answer “female” and “male” and, as a consequence, they will assign different attributes to the same bridge. As evidence, studies have demonstrated that grammar differences like the gender of nouns, can influence the way people think about objects (Samuel et al., 2019; Wolff & Holmes, 2010; Boroditsky, 2018). With regard to the bridge example, experiments have shown that German speakers are more likely to describe bridges with female adjectives, such as “beautiful” and “elegant”, while Spanish people tend to define them as “strong” and “big”, generally male characteristics (Worff & Holmes, 2010).
1, 2, 3 … many
1,2 and 3 linguistic differences that shape our perception of the world. And now, the fourth one: numbers. Did you know that some populations only have words for 1 and 2? Well, welcome to the Piraha, a language spoken by a small tribe in Brazilian Amazonia. This language only has terms for 1 and 2 in its vocabulary, everything else is “many” (Wolff & Holmes, 2010). Evolutionary studies have suggested as a plausible explanation that 1 and 2 have innate mental representation, and are thus intrinsic in every language (Henrich, 2016). The cross-cultural differences, therefore, depend on whether terms for the following numbers have been developed.
Imagine how the world would be if you could just rely on a proximate representation of “many”. How would you be able to distinguish a box with 28 candies from one with 29? Depending on the size, the height, the weight? Or enter into a shop and look at the price of a dress: £30. How much is 30£? Is that many or… many?
It is evident that such linguistic feature strongly shapes our view of the world as a precise system or as a sum of proximate quantities (Henrich, 2016), and the implications on cultural and social development are remarkable. Think about how a monetary and pricing system could be developed if we only had names for 1 and 2. That would clearly be impossible.
Think with language and speak with thought
How are you feeling? Are you still trying to figure out the cardinal directions to reach the closest café? Or are you desperately trying to understand how can blue and green have the same name?
Well, at least now you know why speakers of other languages might have difficulties in understanding each other. Next time you speak a different language, try to focus on the perception of reality. Is the world exactly the same as it was in your native language? You can now guess that it probably won’t.
- This post expresses the views of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science nor LSE.
- This post was originally written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, a compulsory course on the BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science undergraduate programme. The post has been published with the author’s permission.
- Image sourced and adapted via Canva.
Boroditsky, L. (2018, May 2). ‘How language shapes the way we think’. TED Talk https://youtu.be/RKK7wGAYP6k
Bradford, W.D., Dolan, P., Galizzi, M.M. (2019). ‘Looking ahead: Subjective time perception and individual discounting’. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty (2019) 58, Pp. 43-69 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11166-019-09298-1
Cibelli, E., Xu, Y., Austerweil, J.L., Griffiths, T.L., Regier, T. (2016) ‘The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Probabilistic Inference: Evidence from the Domain of Color’. PLoS ONE 11(7) https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0158725
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Henrich, J. (2015). ‘Communicative Tools with rules’ (Chapter 13), from The secret of our success : How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press (2015)
Jiang, W. (2000). ‘The relationship between culture and language’. ELT Journal Volume 54/4, October 2000. Oxford University Press. https://academic.oup.com/eltj/article-abstract/54/4/328/835293
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Majid, A., Bowerman, M., Kita, S., Haun, D.B.M., Levinson, S.C. (2004). ‘Can language recontruct cognition? The case for space’. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 8 (3), March 2004 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661304000208
Pérez, E.O., & Tavits, M. (2017). ‘Language shapes people’s time perspective and support for future-oriented policies’. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 61, No. 3, July 2017, Pp. 715- 727 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ajps.12290
Samuel, S., Cole, G., Eacott, M.J. (2019). ‘Grammatical gender and linguistic relativity: A systematic review’. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (2019) 26, pp. 1767–1786 https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-019-01652-3
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