By: George Wan

Recently, I read an article about the effects languages have on the way we think. It got me thinking so I decided to share this article with you.

The suggestion that languages affect the way we think was first put forth by Benjamin Lee Whorf in 1940. He said that languages restricted our thoughts and if an idea is unable to be expressed in a language, speakers of that language will be unable to grasp the concept of that idea.

Now, let’s test it. In the Chinese language, all verb tenses take the same form (unlike English where a past tense verb gets an –ed tacked on to the end or a future tense verb gets aided by an auxiliary verb like “will”). If you want to say “I will go there” in Mandarin, you’ll just end up saying “I go there”. That means Chinese people cannot grasp the concept of time, right? There is one pronoun to represent he and she in the Chinese language. That means Chinese people cannot comprehend the concept of gender. Huh, what!? Of course we understand the concept time and gender. What was that guy smoking?

So after some time, people went through that same process and realized that Whorf’s idea was preposterous and any study done on this topic after that revelation would be dismissed as equally ludicrous as Whorf’s words of wisdom. As a result, there were minimal progress on the understanding of how languages actually affect the way we think.

Though it is true that languages don’t restrict the way we think, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect the way we think. For example, in the English language, a noun that refers to a person does not take a feminine or masculine form depending on the gender of that person being referred to unlike other languages such as French. Every time you wish to say “a friend”, for example, in French, you would have to think, “Is that friend a male or a female?” and add an –e accordingly. But in English, you don’t have to do that. This extra thought process in French, Spanish, and many other languages forces the speaker to subconsciously think of and notice details that are often absent in the thoughts of an English-speaker.

Another example is the gender-noun in languages such as French, Spanish, German, and Russian. The article outlined a study that showed whether speakers of those languages had a virile impression towards some objects while effeminate impressions towards others. Individuals were asked whether they considered various objects more masculine or feminine. The results showed that speakers of languages with gender-nouns do indeed have certain feelings towards static objects in a way that speakers of languages such as English cannot understand and would find extremely weird.

What was interesting about the results of the study was that German and Spanish speakers would often contradict each other’s opinion of the gender of particular objects. This was because German and Spanish are two languages where many objects’ genders are reversed! For example, “el sol”, which means sun, is a masculine noun in Spanish while “die Sonne”, which also means “the sun”, is a feminine noun in German. Similar contradictions also exist between other languages. This could mean that some speakers of different languages would have different views about the world around them and in turn, cause different ways of thinking between them. To us, a bridge is not a man bridge or a woman bridge; it’s just a bridge.

Perhaps the most interesting topic in that article was about an aboriginal Australian tongue called Guugu Yimithirr. There is no left or right in that language and the only way of conveying directions is by cardinal points – North, South, East, and West (Imagine asking yourself: “Is the coin in my East hand or my West hand?”). Speakers of those kinds of languages are trained since birth to know where north is as we know where left is. Let’s make fun of Whorf again. Does this mean that those people have no sense of direction because they don’t have a word for left and right? He couldn’t be more wrong. An experiment was done to a native speaker of another similar language, Tzeltal. He was blindfolded and spun around twenty times. When asked to point out the cardinal points after, he correctly identified their directions while still stumbling from dizziness. Now that guy would totally rock a vectors test.

Because their languages use geographic directions rather than egocentric ones, those native speakers may view the world differently from us. We think that the world exists around us and my right is right regardless of what the other guy means when he says “Your right is not right but my left.” However, speakers of those languages understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them so they use directions relative to the Earth itself. If you see a speaker of Guugu Yimithirr pointing South at himself, he’s most likely pointing though his body at something behind him; while if you and I were pointing at ourselves, we’re probably pointing at ourselves.

So to what extent do languages affect the way we think? Scientists have no direct answer to that question; the ineffable complexity of our brain and how minute changes in our surroundings can have a profound effect on the way we think is just incomprehensible to us at this time. We know that languages may affect the way we think but not to a point that it restricts us from certain ways of thinking. So now we just need to pick the right answer from within that range. It’ll take a while. In the mean time, try not to learn German or Spanish. It might mess you up. And if you’re not too busy, take Guugu Yimithirr classes. You never know when you’ll be stuck in the middle of nowhere.