How Language Affects Thought

I recently read Dreaming in Hindi, Katherine Russell Rich’s memoir of her year in India learning Hindi. Rich intersperses quirky anecdotes of learning and culture shock with scientific insights about learning a second language. I was excited see her mention two of my favorite studies on language and thought.

Psychologists and philosophers have long debated whether language shapes the way we think. While the most drastic viewpoint – that thought can’t exist without language -- has fallen out of favor, psychologists still study more subtle effects.

The first study has to do with gender in language. Many languages assign genders to words. For example, in Spanish, the word for “key” is feminine, while the German word for” key” is masculine. Gender for the most part is arbitrary and varies from language to language, which allows for some interesting experiments.
Psychologist Lera Boroditsky and colleagues asked Spanish and German speakers to provide descriptive adjectives for different objects. Interestingly, people produced adjectives that were consistent with gender stereotypes. For example, German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful, while Spanish speakers described them as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and shiny. For the word “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the opposite happened. Germans described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, and peaceful, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, and strong.

(Methodological note: the masculinity or femininity of adjectives was determined by a separate group of English speakers, blind to the study’s purpose, who rated these adjectives on masculinity and femininity. It's kind of amusing to see which words received which rating.)

In a second experiment, Boroditsky looked at language and the conception of time. English speakers primarily speak of time in horizontal terms. For example, we talk about moving meetings forward, or pushing deadlines back. Mandarin speakers, on the other hand, use up/down metaphors as well. So a Mandarin speaker would refer to the previous week as “up week” and next week as “down week.”

Boroditsky performed an experiment to see whether priming people to think either vertically or horizontally would affect their ability to think about time. Participants first answered a question about horizontally or vertically placed objects. For example, they saw two worms in a row and had to say whether the black worm was in front. Or they’d see two vertically stacked balls and say whether the black ball was above the white ball. Then the participants answered a question about time (“ Does March come before April”, etc.).

They found that English speakers were quicker to answer questions about time after answering horizontal spatial questions, while Mandarin speakers were quicker after vertical spatial questions. This reminds me of the scaffolded mind idea, in which concrete experiences provide a way to understand abstract concepts.

What do these studies say to me as a writer? It's interesting to see how subtle aspects of language affect the way we think. It argues for thinking like poets and valuing each word were not just a dictionary meaning, but all the other layers of associations and meanings that come with it. I don’t think it’s worth obsessively wondering about subconscious associations, but it’s certainly something interesting to think about.

Note: Dreaming in Hindi was given to me as a review copy.

Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers' Conceptions of Time Cognitive Psychology, 43 (1), 1-22 DOI: 10.1006/cogp.2001.0748


  1. What an interesting book! And ideas. Who comes up with the research ideas??

    I twitted!

  2. Fascinating stuff. I wonder how much of what we consider "cultural" differences are really language differences. Or maybe they're the same thing?

    And I wonder if this explains why English has become a global language--not just because English speakers tend to be too insular to learn anything else--but because gender-neutral nouns allow English to be cross-cultural?

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  4. The time / language / direction was interesting.
    As we read from left to right is it not natural to think of chronology in left to right terms?
    And Mandarin, isn't it written from top to bottom?
    It seems to me that 'before' and 'after' are more closely linked to the format of the written word than the language in these examples.

  5. Taffy -- Boroditsky's real good at what she does

    Anne -- That's an interesting possibility. I'm more inclined to think that English became a global language because of political forces -- cuz it's super hard to learn! Lots and lots of irregularities.

    Gary -- Yes, the written language was something I wonder about too. This experiment doesn't rule that out.

  6. I recommend William Foley's "Anthropological Linguistics" for further reading (more academic than casual/popular: Brain food!). He has some good recounts of the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis which you may find interesting.

  7. This is interesting research. I've often thought about why sailors name their ships a female name, refer to it as "she", and think of it as both beauty and protection. The mother ship.

  8. J.M. -- thanks for the rec. I'll check it out.

    Mary -- I wonder if that's at all related to why car magazines have women draped over the cars :-P

  9. That was really interesting. RT'd the post here:
    I'd love a copy of DREAMING IN HINDI; thanks for a great post :D

  10. RT'd

  11. RT @lkblackburne *A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing*: How Language Affects Thought -- plus book ..

  12. Sorry, not sure I posted the link right, but my RT:

  13. You have to love the Sapir Whorf hypothesis ;) Thanks for an interesting post.

  14. As a student who studied abroad and a consultant at my university's writing center, the research presented here is really fascinating. I definitely noticed a difference in way things are described in Japanese vs English.

    The book sounds pretty fascinating, as well. Thus, here's the link to the tweet.

  15. I'd love to try to win this fascinating book, but I don't have a Twitter Account. Boo hoo! I'd be happy to put it in my sidebar and post it on Facebook. Would that count?

  16. Hi Theresa,
    Unfortunately, the giveaway already happened. I'll take that off the post. Sorry about the confusion!

  17. Ah, this is really interesting. Speaking of Hindi, when I was dating a guy from India, he taught me to say "I love you" in Hindi.

    "Muje tumse pyaar hai" -- loosely translated in English to "Where I am with you, love is." I thought this was so interesting; in English-speaking countries, love is something you DO. But in India, love apparently is something that comes over you when you are with a certain person -- something you passively receive. What a different attitude this brings.

    I think language does a lot to shape thought.

  18. Livia, did you follow the NY Times controversy over Boroditsky? The study isn't originally hers, and she published it in a book chapter, not in a journal. You should compare her paper to the original done by Konishi "The semantics of grammatical gender: A cross-cultural study."

    It's important to give attribution where attribution's due, and this isn't Boroditsky's work, though she often claims it as her own.

    Here's her original work:

    Her book chapter:

    The original Konishi paper:

    You'll notice that her much cited book chapter doesn't mention Konishi, even though she mentions the stimuli used in Konishi's work (and not in her own) in the book chapter.

    This was first pointed out by Guy Deutscher:

  19. Very interesting, Anonymous. I'll take a look. Thanks for the tip!