Yes, Language Does Shape Culture

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It seems common-sensical that what language you speak plays a role in shaping how you think, but for decades the idea was out of fashion. Noam Chomsky and his linguistic followers spurred the shift, arguing that languages share a "universal grammar" that renders their differences almost unimportant. But according to research cited in a Wall Street Journal story by Lera Boroditsky, evidence is building to show that people's thoughts and cultures are, in fact, conditioned by whether they speak Thai, Irish Gaelic, or Globish.

She describes her discovery that speakers of Pormpuraaw, an aboriginal language in Australia, conceptualize time in a distinctive way:

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world's languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.

The same holds, she argues, for ideas of causality. Taking these basic cognitive differences into account, she concludes:

All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.