Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The language you speak influences how you think!

I'd been looking for a good way to introduce the work of Stanford Psychology professor Lera Boroditsky to my readers, and today I found it in this fantastic article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Yes, the language you speak does influence how you think.

I think the first people to put forward the idea that a link existed between culture and language were the anthropologists Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The last two of those are associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that differences in the way language encodes categories etc. affect the way speakers of that language think. There's been a lot of argument about this idea since it came out, and certainly one can argue against a strong form that says language restricts thought. However, Professor Boroditsky has been exploring exactly what the consequences of certain languages are for thought - and in fact, she's finding there is a huge influence between the two. Russian speakers who have more words for blue than English speakers are in fact better able to distinguish between colors of blue. Speakers of different languages conceptualize the "direction" of time differently: left to right vs. right to left vs. below to above. And those who use absolute direction instead of relative direction (N/S/E/W instead of Left/Right) use those directions to organize things chronologically as well as to think about spatial positioning.

I encourage you not only to read this article, but to think about how this affects your writing. What kind of society have you created? What language do they speak, and how does it frame its categories? Once you've figured that out, ask yourself how that categorization system might be further generalized into the society, its beliefs and its behavior. Language does affect thought - so something that shows up in the language should be evident in basic concepts of reality like how many different colors of blue there are, or whether something hanging on a wall is actually "on" it or "up" it. What kinds of distinctions might your people draw that we might not be familiar with?

When I create my societies, I like to see how far I can push these categories and the judgments surrounding them. In doing so, I hope not only to tell a great story, but to show my readers a new way of imagining and conceptualizing the reality that we all share.

I hope you find this article as inspiring as I did.


  1. Orwell's 1984 is an ideal case in point here, I believe. Recall the scene where one Party member is bragging to another about the beauty of the destruction of words, and how soon people won't even be able to have a conversation whose topic is disobedience, much less rebellion.

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  3. That was neat to see a comparison of various languages and how they phrase events. I'm not sure that I can utilize this much in the stories I've already started but maybe in a future story.

    I will certainly keep this in mind when I start a new language, once I settle on which one I want to try to pick up. I've been thinking about Hindustani, Mandarin, and Japanese. While I could try to learn all three, I'm not that great with languages and all three utilize a completely different lettering system from English.

  4. Interesting point, Eric. You're right that the manipulation of language can serve political purposes and change thinking.

    Jaleh, thanks for your comment. Japanese is cool, but requires lots and lots of memorization; so does Mandarin because of the character system. I don't know much about Hindustani. I'm not telling you to rule these languages out, but Japanese and Chinese I know will involve a significant time investment, so make sure you're excited about the prospect before you commit!

  5. Megs - Scattered BitsJuly 29, 2010 at 5:47 AM

    This is something I've always believed and loved. It's why I do have to have an idea of what kind of language a culture speaks before I can just dive in writing them, and why my language focus involves more of the breakdown of concepts and organization of thought than which letters they prefer.

  6. Working on a story about time travel, including travel sideways in time.

    Time is visualised as a river (timestream) flowing from the past to present to future. Relative directions: "Uptime" (i.e. upstream, or into the past) "Downtime" (downstream, or into the future), and I'm thinking about tributaries of river systems for the crosstime directions (i.e. character finds herself on a timeline with few connections to other timelines, maybe she thinks in terms of a creek rather than a stream or river).

    Absolute directions...something to ponder.

    Along with how other-language speakers might visualise the whole damn mess of tangled timelines. :)

  7. David, you might find the adverbs of location and motion in Hupa interesting (Hupa — a cousin of Navajo in California spoken by depressingly few elders). The PDF below is a dissertation on Hupa grammar. The discussion of directionals starting on page 250, and especially the somewhat dense map on page 252, might give you some ideas.


  8. I have a reason for each of the languages why I'd like to learn them, but yes, I know there will be lots of memorization. I'm leaning toward Japanese for the anime my husband and I both enjoy (and he's said that he'd learn it with me--someone to practice with) and Hindustani because I'm falling in love with Bollywood movies (and one of my writer friends is Indian). The songs are so beautiful. Though as long as I can get a phonetic set of the lyrics for me to learn and their translations, I can get by. ;D

    I think Japanese is the most likely choice right now. I really want to have another language, and even though I already know some Spanish (thanks to middle school and high school), I just don't find it as interesting. Too familiar, I guess. I really should improve my proficiency in it anyway.