How Language Affects Thinking

Linguistic relativity is the idea that language differences alone can affect how we perceive world experiences and thus can cause us to behave differently.

In an Edge essay, Lera Boroditsky discusses some of her research into linguistic relativity and how language use (grammar, word choice and language itself) vastly alters our perceptions and thought processes, offering some interesting examples.

Even basic aspects of time perception can be affected by language. For example, English speakers prefer to talk about duration in terms of length (e.g., “That was a short talk,” “The meeting didn’t take long”), while Spanish and Greek speakers prefer to talk about time in terms of amount, relying more on words like “much” “big”, and “little” rather than “short” and “long” Our research into such basic cognitive abilities as estimating duration shows that speakers of different languages differ in ways predicted by the patterns of metaphors in their language. (For example, when asked to estimate duration, English speakers are more likely to be confused by distance information, estimating that a line of greater length remains on the test screen for a longer period of time, whereas Greek speakers are more likely to be confused by amount, estimating that a container that is fuller remains longer on the screen.)

via Mind Hacks



7 responses to “How Language Affects Thinking”

  1. I posted a piece recently noting that there’s currently no word in English that means the opposite of “dense” (as in lead). I wonder how the spectrum of density not having a word for its low end affects our understanding of the physical world.

    Anecdotally, I can say that most people I asked about the opposite of “dense” said that “light” was the word. But of course, something can be both light and dense, if it’s very small, or both heavy and not-dense (i.e, both heavy and “light,” on this strange usage), if it’s very large.

    Does this mean that people somehow intuit that not-dense objects are automatically also not-heavy? Or that we don’t deeply understand why that section of lead pipe feels so heavy? I think it might, unfortunately.

    (See for the post I mentioned, which also looks into the history of English to find a better word to use that “light” or “not-dense.”)

  2. I like these thoughts, Devan.

    I always forget how powerful language is when it comes to managing preconceptions and bias. It’s almost as if we have no power over many of them simply due to the lack of vocabulary.

    There’s a study I read a while back that discusses something similar and I’m going to search it out. If I find it I’ll either update here, or post it.

  3. Nice—looking forward to the post.

  4. fumio

    The opposite of dense is smart, duh!

    Just kidding. I never realized that there was no word to describe the opposite of dense. That’s really intriguing imo. The closest I got to finding such a word was sparse and “fluffy” because I immediately attributed non-denseness to marshmallows and whipped cream (cute amiryte?)

    “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”
    – Ludwig Wittgenstein

  5. Love the quote, fumio. Definitely going to try and remember that one.


  6. Anonymous

    How about the word ‘lite’? According to Chambers ‘ low in weight, amount or density’…