View Full Version : More about how language influences thought

06-27-2009, 08:55 PM
I stumbled across this fascinating piece (http://edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html) by way of Andrew Sullivan's blog (http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/). It presents some interesting data about how language influences thought; that is, the words we know constrain how we can think.

There is an Australian tribe that uses absolute orientation -- north, south, east, west -- to describe location. They never use relative terms like left and right. It is as if their brains are always aware of the geographic grid. Here's an excerpt from the article:

Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms north, south, east, and west to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English). Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them in fact, forces them to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.

It's a fascinating article. It discusses other things, too, such as language differences in time perception.

06-27-2009, 11:33 PM
Good find. This has long been a favorite topic of mine. It amazes me that people (especially writers!) can spew out words all day long with no real clue about what they mean, where they came from, or what they imply. There's a strong urge to label everything, but then we get so caught up in labels we can't even communicate anymore. I get a kick out of political debates, where people talk about the "left" and the "right" as if that isn't completely arbitrary and nonsensical. Especially when the guy on "the left" is standing on the right ... those are stage directions, not philosophies.

Most of the people I know are so obsessed with trying to be successful, they don't know about survival, or even stop to consider what success might be. That's some kind of word/icon malfunction. And yes, they do get lost in the woods. No sense of direction. Had they given more weight to words of orientation and context, they would have turned into different people entirely. It's not just what vocabulary is available, it's what vocabulary you believe in.

Just kidding. Seriously, though, we're mistaken if we think the words we use all mean exactly one thing, or mean the same thing to all listeners. Or that our words don't affect how we see and affect the world. It's not all "black and white".

= scott
http://wordfixx.blogspot.com -- a blog of word lore

07-04-2009, 09:14 PM
Hey, how did I miss that!

I'm thinking, though, that "What enables them to do this ... is their language," is a bit misleading. Isn't this more like a chicken-and-egg question?

It's a cultural thing: do they train their attention that way because of the language, or is their language that way because they train their attention that way? It's a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

Clearly, language has to be integrated with other cultural practise, or it won't work. But how do we gauge language influence? For example: Do people who suffer from language disorders also lose navigational ability?


ETA: Okay, I'm now reading the article (should have done so first, but I didn't want to forget that thread again ;) ). The author does address my questions. I may be back, if I find the time. Thanks for the interesting article.