Speak your mind. Or mind your speaking?

October 15, 2006 | By | 6 Replies More

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.


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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Language, Psychology Cognition, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Many people like to believe in a non-changing "it" that comprises our "soul." They want to believe in an immutable thing that constitutes each person. Without such an unchanging soul (or self), they feel their entire world might fall apart.

    Belief in constants is common among people for whom the universe is a alarming place from which we need to constantly seek refuge. That's why evolution, for instance, is such a threat to so many conservatives–evolution obliterates the bases for believing in several major constants.

    As Heraclitus famously pointed out, though, everything is in flux. The bi-lingual studies you cite demonstrate that the "soul" is really not fixed or permanent. These bilingual studies are further evidence that language is a two-way lens, a colored lens at that. When we hear descriptions of things or events, we hear them expressed with carefully chosen words that evoke specific frames. These frames, in turn, are built upon conceptual metaphors.

    When we proceed to turn around and speak about these things to other people, many of us invoking the same frames and metaphors. But not always. Lawyers, for instance, are drilled to be wary of the frames chosen by the opponent. In fact, it is assumed that no matter how hard you oppose an argument using your opponent's choice of frame, you'll lose the argument. That's how powerful frames (and the words that comprise them) are. Disciplined skeptical thinkers keep a constant look-out for choice of frames, which constitutes a sort of mental presidigitation. How dramatically different it is to converse with the sorts people who are conscious that these frames and metaphors can be consciously examined, questioned and even rejected!

    Those who believe that words are neutral and objective tools for expressing reality miss out on the real battlefront regarding all big issues of the day. Arguments are quite often not about facts. Rather, the battlefront regarding many of our most contentious issues concerns our choices of frames and metaphors. I've written on this topic repeatedly, including here and here. I highly recommend the works of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on this topic. A good starting point is the 2003 version of Metaphors We Live By.  On the power of framing, see Lakoff's Don't Think of An Elephant (2004).

    As Nietzsche wrote: "The truth is a mobile army of metaphors."

    Twenty years ago, I considered language a dull topic. How things change! Now I consider a careful analysis of language a prerequisite to thinking about any abstract subject, especially politics and religion. Ideas have dramatic consequences in these two realms and word choices steer those ideas. I suspect that many people overly-trust the allegedly neutrality of words have been hijacked by others' (i.e., political consultants') choices of words.

    Thanks for the descriptions of several studies grounding these points.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Years ago, I worked in the field of patent law. One of the intriguing characteristics of patent law is that for every new invention that someone creates, new language must also be created to describe it. Just think of the many new (English) words that did not exist until the product that carries the name was invented: elevator, photocopier, inline skate, MP3 player, cell phone, computer, Internet, blog, etc. As our reality mutates and evolves, so must our language — and,likewise, just as Erika points out, our perception of reality cannot change until (after) our language changes.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    English is a slut. That's the secret to its success. The Germanic root of our language is hard to detect (most people are unaware of it) because of all the foreign words and grammatical shortcuts conveniently incorporated into it over its history. As such, it is a much more powerful lingua franca than Latin or Mandarin ever were.

    As for the relationship between language and concepts, that is the study of semantics. Language doesn't create concepts, but it can bound ideas to prevent the user/thinker from noticing subtleties or corollaries of the root idea itself.

    The mind is a multiprocessing system, one thread of which we can observe. We call this one thread consciousness and consider it to be a kind of mediator between many other threads running on in our minds. This view of the conscious mind is one of many competing concepts.

    Language is an interchange format processor that is used to communicate with other similar minds. On the receiving end, there are easily translation errors that lead to misunderstandings.

    The more competing ideas that individuals are exposed to, the greater their functional and cultural vocabulary, the more likely it is that they can communicate accurately in any given circumstance, or at least understand the actual topic.

  4. Deb says:

    Time is a hugely different concept amongst many native americans. A number of traditional languages did not even have a future tense until contact with European immigrants made it necessary. Some languages could not conjugate certain verbs in anything but first person singular. For example, it is reported that Lakota (Sioux) did not have a conjugation for the verbs "believe" and "think," among others. One could only say "I think" or "I believe", not "they think" or "we believe" because one could never assume to know what other thinks or believes.

    Sometimes I wish it was still that way: that I can express what I think or believe, but you can't tell me what I think or believe. We'd all be better off if we stopped telling others what and how to think/believe.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    Another good example of words defining observation is found in the basic color names children are taught.

    Consider "pink". In European languages, there is this distinct word for a tint of red. There is no word for a tint of green, or a tint of blue. We adjectivize those colors to indicate paleness: Pale-green; sky-blue.

    Consider "brown" and "tan". These are shades of yellow-orange.

    Consider "orange" itself: This is a color between the basic colors of red (a visual primary, we have a sensor in our eyes for it) and yellow (equally triggers our red and green sensors).

    Now, designers and artists have thousands of cute distinct names for different varieties of mixing red, green, and blue (the colors of light we see). But if they try to explain them to the rest of us, they drop to the basic vocabulary.

    I'd be happier if they would additionally describe each color by the computer-age 24 million color palette of red, green, and blue values in hexadecimal, delimited decimal, or percent brightness values.


    Example: The tan background of this page has an RGB value of cdba9a, or 205,186,154 which is 80% brightness red, 73% brightness green, and 60% brightness blue. Because the numbers are close together, the color is muted. Because they are high, the color is pale. Well, it seems simpler to me.

    As to the subject of time: As a child I never could get a straight answer from my parents of how long a "moment" was, as in "just a moment". It seemed to mean something to them, but I couldn't measure it and they couldn't explain it. By the time I "got" special relativity, I could understand my special relatives sense of time.

  6. Erika Price says:

    I also find it interesting the way that the English language frequently compares time to money, and what this implies about our culture and economic perspective. Also on the same subject, our language stands out in that it can refer to money as something one "makes"; most languages just have words for "gaining" or "getting".

    See also the difference between English and other languages' use of the word is. In English, you can be afraid, or be forty years old; in Spanish (among many others) you have fear and have forty years. This difference completely shifts the concepts of emotion and age; the English language unfortunately labels people as being a totally temporary state.

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