Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Say what you think, think what you say

Newsweek's Sharon Begley, who can always be relied on for thought-provoking science reporting, has a great piece in the current issue. "What's in a Word?" describes new experiments by Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky that explore the question of whether the language we speak reflects or creates our perceptions. (By the way, I recommend that you click that link to Boroditsky's site and mouse over her picture. That's my kind of scientist!)

Begley quotes Boroditsky as saying, "'Even a small fluke of grammar' -- the gender of nouns -- 'can have an effect on how people think about things in the world.'" Speakers of gendered languages tend to see objects in terms of traditionally masculine or feminine qualities: bridges as immense and powerful (masculine) or as light, soaring and beautiful (feminine). Note: these adjectives were applied to the same bridge, by French and German speakers, respectively.

I've always felt that language shapes what we notice in the world. Although not fluently multilingual, I had the good fortune to be able to study several vastly different languages at fairly early ages -- early enough so that each of three languages has a profound internal logic to me. And boy, are they different!

Read the article for some fascinating examples of how languages and perceptions differ. And think about what we English speakers take for granted that just might not be so somewhere else in the world.
Graphic by Lera Boroditsky. I hope she doesn't mind!