Lera Boroditsky – Cognitive scientist
So, I’ll be speaking to you using language because I can. This is one of these magical abilities that we humans have. We can transmit really complicated thoughts to one another.
So what I’m doing right now is, I’m making sounds with my mouth as I’m exhaling. I’m making tones and hisses and puffs, and those are creating air vibrations in the air. Those air vibrations are traveling to you, they’re hitting your eardrums, and then your brain takes those vibrations from your eardrums and transforms them into thoughts. I hope… I hope that’s happening. So because of this ability, we humans are able to transmit our ideas across vast reaches of space and time.
We’re able to transmit knowledge across minds. I can put a bizarre new idea in your mind right now. I could say, “Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics.” Now, if everything has gone relatively well in your life so far, you probably haven’t had that thought before. But now I’ve just made you think it, through language.
Now of course, there isn’t just one language in the world, there are about 7,000 languages spoken around the world. And all the languages differ from one another in all kinds of ways. Some languages have different sounds, they have different vocabularies, and they also have different structures — very importantly, different structures. That begs the question: Does the language we speak shape the way we think? Now, this is an ancient question.
People have been speculating about this question forever. Charlemagne, Holy Roman emperor, said, “To have a second language is to have a second soul” — strong statement that language crafts reality. But on the other hand, Shakespeare has Juliet say, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Well, that suggests that maybe language doesn’t craft reality. These arguments have gone back and forth for thousands of years. But until recently, there hasn’t been any data to help us decide either way.
Recently, in my lab and other labs around the world, we’ve started doing research, and now we have actual scientific data to weigh in on this question. So let me tell you about some of my favorite examples. I’ll start with an example from an Aboriginal community in Australia that I had the chance to work with. These are the Kuuk Thaayorre people. They live in Pormpuraaw at the very west edge of Cape York.
What’s cool about Kuuk Thaayorre is, in Kuuk Thaayorre, they don’t use words like “left” and “right,” and instead, everything is in cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. And when I say everything, I really mean everything. You would say something like, “Oh, there’s an ant on your southwest leg.” Or, “Move your cup to the north-northeast a little bit.” In fact, the way that you say “hello” in Kuuk Thaayorre is you say, “Which way are you going?” And the answer should be, “North-northeast in the far distance. How about you?”
So imagine as you’re walking around your day, every person you greet, you have to report your heading direction. But that would actually get you oriented pretty fast, right? Because you literally couldn’t get past “hello,” if you didn’t know which way you were going. In fact, people who speak languages like this stay oriented really well. They stay oriented better than we used to think humans could. We used to think that humans were worse than other creatures because of some biological excuse: “Oh, we don’t have magnets in our beaks or in our scales.” No; if your language and your culture trains you to do it, actually, you can do it.
There are humans around the world who stay oriented really well. And just to get us in agreement about how different this is from the way we do it, I want you all to close your eyes for a second and point southeast. Keep your eyes closed. Point. OK, so you can open your eyes. I see you guys pointing there, there, there, there, there. I don’t know which way it is myself — You have not been a lot of help.
So let’s just say the accuracy in this room was not very high. This is a big difference in cognitive ability across languages, right? Where one group — very distinguished group like you guys — doesn’t know which way is which, but in another group, I could ask a five-year-old and they would know.
There are also really big differences in how people think about time. So here I have pictures of my grandfather at different ages. And if I ask an English speaker to organize time, they might lay it out this way, from left to right. This has to do with writing direction. If you were a speaker of Hebrew or Arabic, you might do it going in the opposite direction, from right to left. But how would the Kuuk Thaayorre, this Aboriginal group I just told you about, do it? They don’t use words like “left” and “right.” Let me give you hint.
When we sat people facing south, they organized time from left to right. When we sat them facing north, they organized time from right to left. When we sat them facing east, time came towards the body. What’s the pattern? East to west, right? So for them, time doesn’t actually get locked on the body at all, it gets locked on the landscape. So for me, if I’m facing this way, then time goes this way, and if I’m facing this way, then time goes this way. I’m facing this way, time goes this way — very egocentric of me to have the direction of time chase me around every time I turn my body. For the Kuuk Thaayorre, time is locked on the landscape. It’s a dramatically different way of thinking about time.
Here’s another really smart human trick. Suppose I ask you how many penguins are there. Well, I bet I know how you’d solve that problem if you solved it. You went, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.” You counted them. You named each one with a number, and the last number you said was the number of penguins. This is a little trick that you’re taught to use as kids. You learn the number list and you learn how to apply it. A little linguistic trick.
Well, some languages don’t do this, because some languages don’t have exact number words. They’re languages that don’t have a word like “seven” or a word like “eight.” In fact, people who speak these languages don’t count, and they have trouble keeping track of exact quantities. So, for example, if I ask you to match this number of penguins to the same number of ducks, you would be able to do that by counting. But folks who don’t have that linguistic trick can’t do that.
Languages also differ in how they divide up the color spectrum — the visual world. Some languages have lots of words for colors, some have only a couple words, “light” and “dark.” And languages differ in where they put boundaries between colors. So, for example, in English, there’s a word for blue that covers all of the colors that you can see on the screen, but in Russian, there isn’t a single word. Instead, Russian speakers have to differentiate between light blue, “goluboy,” and dark blue, “siniy.” So Russians have this lifetime of experience of, in language, distinguishing these two colors.
When we test people’s ability to perceptually discriminate these colors, what we find is that Russian speakers are faster across this linguistic boundary. They’re faster to be able to tell the difference between a light and dark blue. And when you look at people’s brains as they’re looking at colors — say you have colors shifting slowly from light to dark blue — the brains of people who use different words for light and dark blue will give a surprised reaction as the colors shift from light to dark, as if, “Ooh, something has categorically changed,” whereas the brains of English speakers, for example, that don’t make this categorical distinction, don’t give that surprise, because nothing is categorically changing.