Does Language Shape the Way You Think?

In the New York Times, Guy Deutscher has a lengthy article about the speculations of some linguists that the language that we first learn strongly shapes and limits how we think. One interesting example that he cites is an Australian aboriginal language that has no personal spatial descriptors, such as the English phrases "to my right" or "behind me". Instead, it uses cardinal directions in everyday conversation:

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

Link via Popehat | Photo by Flickr user psd used under Creative Commons license

Newest 5
Newest 5 Comments

ohhoho Even the English numbersystem is more descriptive than the Germanic numbersystem.

English say Fifty One (fif = 5 ty = ten) - meaning Fifty plus One.
Germans say Ein und Fünfzig meaning One and Fifty just like is done in English from 13 to nineteen.

Now try to remember telephonenumbers in both languages, like say

0117 - 4513259

Lots of people would somehow split up the number to remember it- like say 0117 45 132 59

In English you would just say like
zero one one seven forty five hundred thirty two fifty nine
However you say it- The numerical order will never change

Yet in German or like in this example in Dutch (same as in German) it coul0d become:

zero hundred seven teen five and forty hundred two and thirty nine and fifty.

That is why we see far more number-dyslectia in Germanic-lingual countries than in Anglish-lingual countries.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
I think it changes me emotionally. When I speak and think in Russian, I'm very happy, optimistic and humorous. When I speak English I always end up feeling depressed and blank minded
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
My sister and I grew up learning the same language, but why does her explanations become the equivelent of "Can you get my thing? It's sitting on the thing".
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
A HUGE amount of native English speakers have NO IDEA how handicapped their thinking about group dynamics and diplomacy is from just the simple fact that the English language has no plural term for "You" and instead has the confusing use of "you" as both singular and plural.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Does Language Shape the Way You Think?"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More