Out there on the Internet, you’ll find a popular quote, or a version of it, that is attributed to everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Margaret Thatcher to that ever elusive but always quotable Anonymous. Throw in a couple of variations claimed by random small-time bloggers, and you’d have us believing that we all agree on this one thing: that thoughts become words, words become actions and after a few other things becoming things, it all becomes our destiny.
But what if these renowned thinkers like Gandhi and Thatcher (and those random bloggers) have it just the littlest bit backwards? What if it’s also true that our words become our thoughts before our thoughts become our words?
In a recent episode of Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vedantam interviewed cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, whose research shows profound correlations between between language and thought, suggesting that the way we think is shaped in great part by our language.
Boroditsky, for example, considers the way that grammatical gender—assigning gender to nouns so that in Spanish, the word for sun is masculine and the moon is feminine, while the opposite occurs in German, for instance—will lead the speakers of those languages to perceive certain objects as having traditionally masculine traits (ie, strong) while other objects may be seen as having more traditionally feminine traits (ie, elegant).
In other cases, Boroditsky considers that the lack of specific number words in some languages serves to prevent those cultures from making certain technological advances because they do not have the words for exact numbers which are necessary to perform complex mathematics such as algebra and trigonometry or to develop through the fields of architecture or engineering.
The way in which we perceive time and direction are also bound up with language. In those societies where direction is solely oriented to the landscape (north, south, east, west) as opposed to the body (left, right), time will typically only flow from east to west, so that the direction that one might lay out objects chronologically will vary depending on which direction one is facing.
When I was first learning Spanish, I was struck by the idea that a person didn’t cause things to happen accidentally. That is, if I were washing dishes and dropped a plate, I wouldn’t say that I was washing dishes and dropped a plate. I would say that I was washing dishes and a plate dropped itself. Boroditsky discusses this linguistic feature in the interview, suggesting that the difference in perception between an English speaker and a Spanish speaker in this type of circumstance is that the English speaker will more likely be focused on “who did it” while the Spanish speaker may emphasize that the plate breaking was accidental. Or, the English speaker may be more concerned with blame and punishment where the Spanish speaker is more interested in expressing the event itself. What we focus on in such circumstances, and what details we recall later, is heavily influenced by the way our language works.
When I was introduced to this—to my ear, awkward—construction, it was explained to me that the effect (or perhaps it was believed to be the cause) of using language in this way was that a Spanish speaker was able relieve himself of responsibility. It’s too bad this was the explanation, rather than recognizing a simple difference in focus, a difference in what is valued. The person who explained this grammatical feature to me attached a value judgment to it, rendering Spanish speakers as a whole to be somehow morally deficient. Looking back on it now, it seems to me an argument—and a good one—might be made that the less deficient model is the more passive construction, relieving a person of the need to affix blame, and rather allow one to focus on the fact that it happened at all. The dish is broken; let’s take care of that.
Boroditsky’s research suggests that speaking more than one language can help us approach things with at least somewhat more openness. Returning to the idea of gendered language, their studies found that a monolingual individual may have internalized the gendered properties of an object and would consider the object to be masculine or feminine because that is its intrinsic gender property, while a bilingual person—familiar with the manner in which gendered language operates, and even quite possibly speaking languages in which that same object might be gendered differently—perceives that the gendered properties of the object are a consequence of the way that the language works. Having two or more linguistic frameworks within which to work—and there’s reason to believe from the research that while operating in one language we have our other language(s) still tracking in the background—enables us to look at a singular event or circumstance from multiple vantage points.
In the end, Boroditsky says, “Language guides our reasoning,” as much as we might like to believe that our language merely gives expression to it.
This week, we’re discussing Hidden Brain’s Watch Your Mouth podcast episode. Take a listen if you haven’t yet had a chance, and share with us in the comments any ideas that were surprising to you, that helped you understand an experience you’ve had with language, or made you want to dig in further.
Also, feel free to discuss with us this TED Talk with Lera Boroditsky on the same topic.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish