Monday, January 9, 2012

language and thinking

A friend recently shared an article by Lera Boroditsky (Stanford), who has done research on the relationship between language and cognition across various languages. This article was really fascinating, and she argues that her research shows how language affects the way we are able to think about things. I would questions some of her conclusions, and she is not critical enough about her generalizations about "cultures" as monolithic, but it's still an interesting piece.

Some examples from Boroditsky's article:

language and time:  ...English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors (e.g., "The best is ahead of us," "The worst is behind us"), whereas Mandarin speakers have a vertical metaphor for time (e.g., the next month is the "down month" and the last month is the "up month"). Mandarin speakers talk about time vertically more often than English speakers do, so do Mandarin speakers think about time vertically more often than English speakers do? Imagine this simple experiment. I stand next to you, point to a spot in space directly in front of you, and tell you, "This spot, here, is today. Where would you put yesterday? And where would you put tomorrow?" When English speakers are asked to do this, they nearly always point horizontally. But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or eight times more often than do English speakers.

language and gender: when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering."

Link to entire article here:

And a similar article in the New York Times from 2010,
Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

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