Sunday, February 13, 2011

Does the Language You Speak Affect How You Think?

I picked up Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different in Other Languages at the library last week.  Ever since I was a student in Germany and had to take all my classes in German and got to the point where I could let go of English and just talk in German without translating, I began to think, “Wow, a different language makes you see the world differently.” 

I was vaguely aware that not every linguist agreed, so I thought this book might be interesting.

Does language reflect the culture of a society in any profound sense beyond such trivia as the number of words it has for snow or for shearing camels? And even more contentiously, can different languages lead their speaker to different thoughts and perceptions?

So, what’s your answer?  [STOP!  Don't read on until you answer.  Just a yes or no will do.]

I, of course, want to say yes. But then it said.
For most serious scholars today, the answer to all these questions is a resounding no. The dominant view among contemporary linguists s that language is primarily an instinct, in other words, that the fundaments of language are coded in our genes and are the same across the human race. Noam Chomsky has famously argued that a Martian scientist would conclude that all earthlings speak dialects of the same language. Deep down, so runs the theory, all languages share the same universal grammar, the same underlying concepts, the same degree of systemic complexity. . .

OK, so I should read this and find out where I’m wrong and why. I’m open to changing my stories about the world if I get new information. But then I read on.
In the pages to follow, however, I will try to convince you, probably against your initial intuition, and certainly against the fashionable academic view of today, that the answer to the questions above is - yes.

Hot damn. I have an ally. So, I’ll let you know if the rest of the book is as good as the beginning. He does have a sense of humor and playfulness that I’m enjoying just in the prologue.

See, I can do it. This post is under 400 words. One more short post to go. But maybe I can make this a habit.

[UPDATE:  I have a follow up post here which is much better than this one.]


  1. Okay, but you do realize that Eskimos don't actually have 200 words for snow, right? That was something that got misinterpreted, exaggerated, and spread around like wildfire, supposedly proving that they view snow differently than other cultures. Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, which means they can take a root word and add other elements to make one word that expresses a particular situation, like "snow on your hair," which would mean they actually have a limitless number of words for snow or for anything else, for that matter. Everybody points to the Eskimo words for snow to prove this language/culture thing, so I thought I'd get that in there...

  2. Sounds like an interesting book, let us know what the findings are. My own assumption about the matter is that it's yes, but probably only because it's so hard to separate language from culture. In fact, when so much of our food, celebration and religion overlap or converge, language stands out as a significant difference between peoples, when other things are the same.

    I think it's difficult to do studies like this because it's not politically correct to see difference. In order to eliminate discrimination, and to foster a sense of togetherness, we usually underline what our commonalities are. But I think "difference" is much more interesting.

  3. Anon, of course, you're right. Limiting my words for three posts, as I said I'd do, meant I kept it brief. Deutscher had previously said, "should these lofty observations be carried away from the conviviality of the dining room to the chill of the study, they would quickly collapse like a soufflé of airy anecdote - at best amusing and meaningless, at worst bigoted and absurd."

    I didn't mean to emphasize the snow example, it was in the sentence I wanted. And since it didn't mention 'Eskimo' I didn't bother to explain it. So thanks for clarifying this for folks who still believe this.

  4. Just found your blog. This is a favorite subject of mine and I agree with your instinct on this. Even if the underlying structure of language is the same, it doesn't logically follow that different languages don't manifest different ways of thinking, unless one can show that the underlying structure is the only part of language that effects thought. We have plenty of examples in math and science where identical underlying structures result in significantly different things.

    Considering the very simple and well understood cognitive biases like the framing effect and anchoring that have been shown to powerfully effect the way we think, it's difficult for me to imagine that something as fundamental to thought as language remains neutral in it's influence on thought.

    It would be interesting to consider this problem from the perspective of notational systems like music or more formal languages like programming languages.

  5. And I'm convinced, Mark, that using characters instead of a phonetic alphabet does something different to the Chinese brain. BTW, I checked our your link and your pictures make me very humble.

  6. Regardless of the final verdict, it's a fascinating subject. Thanks for checking out the photography page. Maybe we'll bump into each other out and about Anchorage.


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