(Great Vocab Didn't Save the Thesaurus t-shirt now on sale at the NeatoShop)
In a fascinating article for NPR, Alan Yu writes:
Lera Boroditsky once did a simple experiment: She asked people to close their eyes and point southeast. A room of distinguished professors in the U.S. pointed in almost every possible direction, whereas 5-year-old Australian aboriginal girls always got it right.
They weren't the only ones. Linguist John McWorter explains how using cardinal directions seems to indicate greater intelligence in spatial manipulation:
As an example, he refers to modern speakers of a Mayan language, who also use directions that roughly correspond to compass points, rather than left or right. Researchers asked people, most of whom only knew this language, to do tasks like memorizing how a ball moved through a maze, which would have been easier had they thought about it in terms of left and right, rather than compass points. The participants were just as good at these tasks and sometimes better,leading the experimenters to conclude they were not constrained by their language.
Some linguists think that language can constrain or liberate our thinking, opening or closing mental possibilities. For example, the Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote his first autobiography in English. When a publisher asked him to translate it into Russian, Nabokov started to do so. But he promptly found himself writing a different book. Yu quotes linguist Aneta Pavlenko:
"When Nabokov started translating it into Russian, he recalled a lot of things that he did not remember when he was writing it in English, and so in essence it became a somewhat different book," Pavlenko says. "It came out in Russian and he felt that in order to represent his childhood properly to his American readership, he had to produce a new version. So the version of Nabokov's autobiography we know now is actually a third attempt, where he had to recall more things in Russian and then re-translate them from Russian back into English."
This reminds me of studying Koine Greek, which has a grammatical concept called "aspect." Nothing really corresponds with it in English. The experience made me wonder what invisible mental barriers were in my mind simply because of language.
On the other hand, it would be equally foolish to say that our thoughts are constrained by language. If that were so, no new words would be created.