How Language Speaks You

Recently, researchers have been looking again into the ways different languages affect how we think. Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed the idea 1956 in M.I.T.’s Technology Review and the theory became quite trendy, until closer examination revealed that he had little research to back up his claims and some of his generalizations were just too broad to accept. For example, he said that if we were missing a word in our language, then we couldn’t grasp the concept. Although we don’t have the word Schadenfreude in English, we can easily understand the idea: delighting in others’ misfortunes. We get it, but perhaps we think less of this perverse delight, than Germans.

In “Does Language Shape How You Think?” an article in the New York Times Magazine, Guy Deutscher argues, “When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world” (Deutscher 45).

Language and Gender

In English, for example, we don’t always have to specify gender. If I say, “‘I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.’ You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way” (Deutscher 44). As we change words in English from “policeman” to “police officer” and “fireman” to “fire fighter,” we are acknowledging that such words invariably makes us think of a man. (My spelling/grammar check function marked the word “policeman” as “bias language,” but, interestingly enough, did not mark “fireman” the same way.) If we are looking for a new “chairman,” we are likely to choose a man, since that is what the picture the word puts in our minds. Exchanging words like “mankind” for “humankind,” allow women to be a part of the same species, rather than a lesser version, a “weaker vessel.” In English, it will be far easier to remove these gender distinctions than in other languages, in which everything has a gender.

Deutscher writes about an experiment that asked various nationalities to ascribe a human to various objects, as in an animated movie. “When French speakers saw a picture of a fork (la fourchette), most of them wanted it to speak in a woman’s voice, but Spanish speakers, for whom el tenedor is masculine, preferred a gravelly male voice” (Deutscher 45). In an article in Newsweek, “What’s in a Word? Language May Shape Our Thoughts,” Sharon Begley discusses research by Standford psychologist, Lera Boroditsky: “Germans describe keys (Schlussel) with words such as hard, heavy, jagged, and metal, while to Spaniards keyes (llaves) are golden, intricate, little and lovely” (Begley). The affects of language can be seen in how we picture art, life and death. In art, “Germans tend to paint death as male, and Russians tend to paint it as female” (Begley).

Begley describes how reactions to Viaduct de Millau, the tallest bridge in the world demonstrates how different languages think differently about bridges depending on the gender of the word. “In French, pont is masculine. German speakers saw prototypically female features: French speakers, masculine ones. . . . German newspapers described how it ‘floated above the clouds’ with ‘elegance and lightness’ and ‘breathtaking beauty. In France, papers praised the ‘immense’ ‘concrete giant” (Begley).

Distinct Words Help You See More Accurately

When languages have distinct words for different things, speakers of those language notice distinctions more readily. “Boroditsky and colleagues showed volunteers three color swatches and asked them which of the bottom two was the same as the top one. Native Russian speakers were faster than English speakers when the colors had distinct names, suggesting that having a name for something allows you to perceive it more sharply. Similarly, Korean uses one word for ‘in’ when one object is in another snugly (a letter in an envelope), and a different one when an object is in something loosely (an apple in a bowl). Sure enough, Korean adults are better than English speakers at distinguishing tight fit from loose fit” (Begley).

Your Language Determines How You View Space

In English, we give directions in ego-centric terms, based on the direction that the speaker is facing. As anyone who has had any trouble distinguishing left and right, such directions are not an obvious way to view the world. Deutscher describes an Australian aboriginal language from north Queensland, Guugu Yimithirr, which “does not have words like ‘left’ or ‘right,’ ‘in front of’ or ‘behind,’ to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say ‘ move a bit to the east.’ To tell you where exactly they left in your house, they’ll say, ‘I left it on the southern edge of the western table’ . . . . If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was ‘coming northward'” (Deutscher 45).

Speakers of Guugu Yimithirr must know every moment of their lives where the cardinal directions lie, “without lunch breaks or weekends off.” Deutshcer goes on to say, “Indeed, speakers of geographic language seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or in an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. . . . One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographical directions” (Deutscher 46). If we saw a speaker of Guugu Yimithirr pointing towards himself, we would assume he was indicating himself, but in fact he would be pointing through himself to the cardinal direction behind him.

Other languages indicate how the speaker came to know the information (which would save academic readers and writers a lot of trouble). “Some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify, exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, ‘An animal passed here.’ You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect ‘evidentiality,’ it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how man wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would say something like ‘There were two last time I checked.’ After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense” (Deutscher 47).

You Broke It! (It Broke Itself . . . )

Language may also affect how we view responsibility. In English, we are always asking who is to blame, even in the case of an accident, but in other languages, speakers are less insistent about who was responsible and more interested in the event. Begley writes, “while English says ‘she broke the bowl’ even if it smashed accidentally (she dropped something on it, say), Spanish and Japanese describe the same event more like ‘the bowl broke itself.’ ‘When we show people video of the same event,’ says Boroditsky, ‘English speakers remember who was to blame even in an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers remember it less well than they do intentional actions. It raises questions about whether language affects even something as how we construct our ideas of causality” (Begley).

You Can’t Translate

It took me years as an English as a Second Language teacher to realize that many students get stuck because they are trying to say the same things in the same way in English that they say in their other languages. I didn’t understand what the problem was for years, or why they made such strange sentences. Now I know that I must teach students that speaking English requires them to phrase things differently. No, to think differently! What affect does it have in Japanese when someone introduces themselves as “Watashi wa St. Giles no Ron Richardson desu,” (I am St. Giles’ Ron Richardson), rather than “I am Ron Richardson, and I work for St. Giles”? What affect does saying “I am 42” versus “I have 22 years,” or “I am cold” versus “I have cold,” have on the speaker’s view of age and temperature? In Spanish, there is no word for brunch, so they don’t go out for brunch, as we do.

The Once Familiar “Thou” Distances You From God

When languages distinguish between the formal “you” and the informal, speakers must always think about their respective levels and ages, while in English we don’t make this distinction any more. This doesn’t mean we will see the world more democratically, but it helps. We used to use “thee,” “thou” and “thine.” These informal pronouns were the equivalent of the “tu” form in Spanish, as opposed to the formal “usted.” We eliminated the informal “thou” and kept the formal “you.”

When religious people use “thou” and “thee” when praying to God, they think they are being more formal, because these forms are rare and literary, but in fact the words were originally used to show an intimacy with God, now they create distance.

Write or Be Written

I have already written about how language shapes thought, for example in my post Penetrate the Power of Words: Defining Sex, in which I looked at how a word like “penetration” makes heterosexual sex something a man does, while a woman receives, but if we changed the the word to “engulfment,” the whole structure of our society might change. Women might pick up men in bars, instead of the other way around. They might be on top in bed and in government. Understanding the language you use, can help you understand yourself, can help you understand how and why you think the way you do. A little meta-awareness can give you more power over your words. Instead of letting your words write you, you will have a chance to rewrite your words.

(To read more about the influence of narrative language on perception and behavior, read my book Narrative Madness, available at or on Amazon. Thanks to Omar Rodriguez Rodriguez and my co-workers Ken West and David Babbitz.)

Works Cited

Begley, Sharon. “What’s in a Word? Language May Shape Our Thoughts.” Newsweek 9 July 2009. MSNBC. Web. 23 June 2010.

Deutscher, Guy. “Does Language Shape How You Think?” The New York Times Magazine. 26 August 2010: 42 – 47. Web. 6 October 2010.

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