These Thoughts Were Made in American English


Are our thoughts shaped by language? Is our understanding of a tangible world determined by something so otherworldly as vocabulary and grammar? Of all the lines of inquiry a psycholinguist can pursue, this is certainly among the sexiest: philosophically and intuitively compelling, yet fraught with controversy. Simply mentioning Whorfianism (alternatively known as the Whorfian Hypothesis, the principle of linguistic relativism, or “that idiotic notion that language shapes thought”) can elicit eye rolls from many older, stauncher researchers, those who have witnessed both the triumphant claims put forth by Whorfians and the “failure to replicate” publications that have trailed those claims like toilet paper on a shoe.

At its boldest, Whorfianism holds that our thoughts are limited by the language we speak. Suppose you live in Brazil and are a speaker of Pirahã, a language without words for exact numbers. Because there is no word for, say, 13, the concept that 13 is exactly one fewer than 14 and one more than 12 is foreign to you: when confronted with two piles of gold coins, one containing 12 coins and the other containing 13, no amount of counting or rearranging the coins could help you choose the bigger pile, or determine how many coins the two piles differed by.

Or perhaps your language doesn’t specify tense (e.g., past, present) in every grammatical sentence. Then you probably do not conceive of events as occurring in time, at least not as often or as rigidly as English speakers do. Injuries heal, storms pass, and weddings are celebrated in a strange, eternal present. Planning ahead is exceedingly difficult. Or let’s say you’re a deaf child born to hearing parents in an isolated village, your language consisting solely of the fixed signs for More milk or Go to bed that you and your family have cobbled together over the years. Because you have been deprived of a true native language, with all of its complexity, your thoughts and feelings themselves lack complexity.

These conclusions, representative of a strong Whorfian view, will likely strike you as odd, as they do psycholinguists. And it turns out that a strong Whorfian view is a bit of a straw man these days, generally appearing in academic debates only to make its alternative, a weak Whorfian view, seem entirely reasonable—so reasonable as to be mundane.

Perhaps the weakest Whorfian view holds that language subtly shapes how objects and events in the world are categorized. If your language has a word for, say, schadenfreude, you might later remember two distinct events that evoked this emotion in you as being more similar than if there were no word to describe them. But as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and others have pointed out, this in itself isn’t particularly remarkable. Memory researchers have long understood that category membership influences memory: you would probably also describe two people wearing a red shirt, or sharing the same common last name, as more similar than two people wearing different colored shirts, or having different last names, especially if they were otherwise quite different people and similarities were hard to come by.

Likewise, if you have a term for the color turquoise in your language—and thus a readily available category name to access upon seeing the color—your memory for whether a paint chip you saw an hour ago was emerald or turquoise will be stronger than if you simply have the broader term green. This, too, is not particularly exciting. Having an accessible category name provides you with an additional cue to use when attempting to retrieve information about the paint chip.  It certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t see or understand the color turquoise. Indeed, it would be surprising if having a go-to label for certain features did not enhance memory for them.

On the one hand, then, is a fascinating, if data-defying, straw man theory. On the other is a replicable, but hardly groundbreaking, words-as-category-markers effect. Is there anything in between? Next week I’ll talk about an intriguing study that argues, yes, there is.


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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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