Despite countless pieces of evidence to the contrary, we don’t like to think of language as an influence on our thoughts. We like to think of language as a passive tool at our disposal, one that does not err or influence our communication. But the brain does not work like a computer, nor does language processing work like a straightforward computer program. Language influences thought in an inextricable way.
That idea has come up many times in centuries past, from Bhartrihari to Boas to Kant. But the concept that language can shape thought, rather than the other way around, really took off in the 1950s upon the publication of the Whorf Hypothesis. Whorf’s hypothesis held that, though we think of language formation as a passive process, the language we use gives us the categories that assist us in making sense of the world. He wrote:
“[people believe that] talking, or the use of language, is supposed only to ‘express’ what is essentially already formulated nonlinguistically…[but] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.”
— (Language, Thought and Reality pp. 212–214).
Whorf came to this conclusion studying Native American dialects in the 1930s. He noticed a glaring difference in the way European and Native American peoples conceptualized time; we consider time concrete, like a place or a thing. For instance, we can use time-oriented phrases such as “two months” the same way we might use “two chairs” or “two houses down the street”. Native American dialects instead reference time as a more abstract, ever-changing process. In light of this, European-language metaphors that equate time with a place or object, such as “sometime down the road” and “give it a few days” make little sense to a Cherokee- or Chippewa-speaker.
More surprisingly, language can have an inseparable connection to personality as well. Past research has already demonstrated several times over that the thoughts expressed by bilingual people tend to change based on which language they use. In a 1997 study, Chinese/English bilinguals spoke more about individuality when prompted to talk about themselves in English, and more about their collective role in society when prompted in Chinese. This makes sense in light of the differences between Western thought, which emphasizes personal achievement, and Eastern thought, which generally prefers group harmony.
A similar study demonstrated that French/English bilinguals prove more quick to argue and withdraw from conversation in French than in English, because French culture places a higher premium on oral argument in the face of insult. In addition, French/English bilingual women placed more value on success and achievement in English than in French, thanks again to our more cutthroat, achievement-based culture.
This year, the Journal of Research in Personality published a study of Spanish and English bilinguals. Bilingual participants took personality tests ranking Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Openness in both of their native tongues. The results backed up past research- when speaking in English, a participant became more extroverted, agreeable, and conscientious, as well as mildly less neurotic than their own Spanish-speaking results. I should note that “extraversion” in this test meant assertiveness and confidence, the traits of the quintessential pig-headed American.
This flies in the face of many assumptions that we take for granted. We like to assume that language takes place after we form a thought, rather than helping us to form it, though we now know better. We also like to cling to the idea of an unchanging, unflinching “self” with traits that basically never vary (much like our memories’ tendency to make the past seem consistent with the present).
It seems that, in all things, we look for some kind of fundamental “essence”—the “essence” of our personality (a “soul”?), or the “essence” of what idea we want to communicate, in some kind of supposed pure form in the mind. Why does it seem to dismay us to find that these pure, untainted true selves and true thoughts don’t really exist, and that everything about us, from our words and ideas to our personalities themselves, occur only in relative? It must insult our love of individuality, and of concrete objects that we can easily define.
In Western thought, anyway. I can’t vouch for cultures (or languages) that better value collectivism and uncertainty. See? It all depends on your frame of reference.