Thursday, July 23, 2009

Does Language Shape Thought?

The July 20th issue of Newsweek magazine included a very thought provoking (no pun intended) article about well-known linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf's question of whether or not the particular language we speak shapes the way we think and view the world. I won't discuss the entire article (it can be viewed by clicking on the link above) but the gist of it is that a psychologist from Stanford University, Lera Boroditsky, is collecting evidence from a series of experiments that strongly suggest language does shape thought. One of the examples given in the article involves the difference between masculine and feminine nouns in different languages. In German, the word for bridge is feminine (Brucke) while in French it is masculine (pont). In 2004 a new bridge opened in the south of France and German newspapers described the bridge with feminine adjectives while the French papers used masculine adjectives.

The main reason I bring up the article is that it includes the idea that if language does shape thought, it "is not merely a means of expressing thought, but a constraint on it, too."

I do believe that the language we speak is capable of shaping our thoughts but I am not so sure that it constrains them. Because language is always changing, I am not so sure it can be constrained in the same way it can be shaped.

I would love to hear from readers with examples that support or refute the hypothesis. And I would love to hear your thoughts on the constraint.


Anonymous said...

I think this is a very interesting concept, one that needs more research indeed. I wonder what kind of adjectives speakers of English would assign to words such as 'bridge' and 'key'?

Virtual Linguist said...

It's interesting that the figures that personify England and the USA are male (John Bull, Uncle Sam), but the equivalent French and Russian symbols are female (Marianne and Mother Russia).

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...