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kottke.org posts about Lera Boroditsky

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.

Language shapes thought

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2009

Lera Boroditsky shares some recent studies which show that language shapes the way we think.

How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.

One of my favorite examples of this is something that Meg told me about years ago. In English, you might say something like, “I lost the keys” whereas in Spanish you could use a reflexive verb and say something more like “the keys lost themselves”. Her guess was that difference makes Spanish speakers somewhat less likely to take responsibility for their actions…e.g. I didn’t knock that vase over, it knocked itself over. (thx, david)

Update: Boy, the old inbox is humming on this one. People, including several linguists wrote in objecting to two main points. First, some said that it is far from certain that the research shows that language shapes thought; a couple people even went so far as to say that what Boroditsky wrote was just plain wrong. So there’s certainly some debate there.

The second batch of posts took issue with what my wife Meg said about Spanish speakers. Let me try to clarify and explain what she was getting at without sounding like I’m a racist who thinks the Spanish and Mexicans are irresponsible klutzes (which I don’t, if it wasn’t COMPLETELY FUCKING OBVIOUS from the subject and tone of everything else I’ve ever written on this site, but thanks for going there anyway). Instead of what I wrote above, let’s try this instead:

In my wife’s experience as a fluent speaker of Mexican Spanish and who lived in Mexico for a year, she observed that when people misplaced their keys (and this is just one of many possible examples), they are far more likely to say something like “the keys lost themselves” than “I lost the keys” whereas in American English, you would never say “the keys lost themselves”. In fact, she says that this sort of formulation is one of the quick ways to tell who speaks Mexican Spanish as a native and who doesn’t. A reader says this is called the accidental se (scroll to the bottom). So with Spanish, there’s a sense that these inanimate objects have some say in their actions, that they are “alive” and the speaker is in fact the victim. Those michevious keys lost themselves and now I’m late for work, that crazy glass tipped itself over and now I need to clean it up, etc.

In English, you could certainly say “the keys are lost” when deflecting responsibility for their loss (something everyone does, regardless of race or culture or language) but that’s clearly not the same as the keys losing themselves…that’s the real difference. I’ll let Boroditsky explain what effects this difference might have on how Spanish speakers think, if any, lest I get any more angry emails. (thx, everyone, esp. kyle)