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How Language Shapes the Way We Think

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2019

At the TEDWomen 2017 conference, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky gave a talk on how different languages affect how their speakers think about the world. It ended up being the most viewed online TED Talk in 2018. Boroditsky’s first example of how language shapes thought is the directional thinking of the Kuuk Thaayorre people of Australia.

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.