How Language Shapes How We Think

September 17, 2010

The New York Times has a fascinating article on how the language we speak may or may not shape the way we think. The title is “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” and it is written by Guy Deutscher.

This is clearly a topic that has been plagued by pseudo-science over the decades, and we are only now beginning to get real data. Consider the Australian aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr, in which the position of objects relies on cardinal directions such as “north” or “south”. They do not make use of such terms as “in front of” or “behind”. This is well illustrated as follows:

“One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours: the same bathroom door on the left, the same mirrored wardrobe on the right, the same main room with the same bed on the left, the same curtains drawn behind it, the same desk next to the wall on the right, the same television set on the left corner of the desk and the same telephone on the right. In short, you have seen the same room twice. But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south. In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms.”