The fact that even quirks of grammatical gender, can affect our thinking is profound

Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun. That’s a lot of stuff!

I have described how languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people’s minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses.8 Taken together, these results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.

Mitchell and K

1 S. C. Levinson and D. P. Wilkins, eds., Grammars of Space: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

G. de Villiers and P

3 B. Tversky et al., “ Cross-Cultural and Developmental Trends in Graphic Productions,” Cognitive Psychology 23(1991): 515–7; O. Fuhrman and L. Boroditsky, “Mental Time-Lines Follow Writing Direction: Comparing English and Hebrew Speakers.” Proceedings of the 29th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (2007): 1007–10.

4 L. Boroditsky, “Do English and Mandarin Speakers Think Differently About Time?” Proceedings of the 48th Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society (2007): 34.

5 D. Casasanto et al., “How Deep Are Effects of Language on Thought? Time Estimation in Speakers of English, Indonesian Greek, and Spanish,” Proceedings of the 26th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (2004): 575–80.

6 Ibid., “How Deep Are Effects of Language on Thought? Time Estimation in Speakers of English and Greek” (in review); L. Boroditsky, “Does Language Shape Thought? English and Mandarin Speakers’ Conceptions of Time.” Cognitive Psychology 43, no. 1(2001): 1–22.

7 L. Boroditsky et al. “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics,” in D. Gentner and S. Goldin-Meadow, eds., Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 61–79.

8 L. Boroditsky, “Linguistic Relativity,” in L. Nadel ed., Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science (London: MacMillan, 2003), 917–21; B. W. Pelham et al., “Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82, no. 4(2002): 469–86; A. Tversky & D. Kahneman, “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.” Science 211(1981): 453–58; P. Pica et al., “Exact and Approximate Arithmetic in an Amazonian Indigene Group.” Science 306(2004): 499–503; J. A. de Villiers, “Linguistic Determinism and False Belief,” in P. Riggs, eds., Children’s Reasoning and the Mind (Hove, UK: Psychology Press, in press); J. A. Lucy and S. Gaskins, “Interaction of Language Type and Referent Type in the Development of Nonverbal Classification Preferences,” in Gentner and Goldin-Meadow, 465–92; L. F. Barrett et al., “Language as a Context for Emotion Perception,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11(2007): 327–32.

Clearly, languages require different things of their speakers. Does this mean that the speakers think differently about the world? Do English, Indonesian, Russian, and Turkish speakers end up attending to, partitioning, and remembering their experiences differently just because they speak different languages? For some scholars, the answer to these questions has been an obvious yes. Just look at the way people talk, they might say. Certainly, speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world just so they can use their language properly.

To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they’ll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role.3 So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don’t use words like “left” and “right”? What will they do?

To test whether differences in color language lead to differences in color perception, we compared Russian and English speakers’ ability to discriminate shades of blue. In Russian there is no single word that covers all the colors that English speakers call “blue.” Russian makes an obligatory distinction between light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). Does this distinction mean that siniy blues look more different from goluboy blues to Russian speakers? Indeed, the data say yes. Russian speakers are quicker to distinguish two shades of blue that are called by the different names in Russian (i.e., one being siniy and the other being goluboy) than if the two fall into the same category.

In fact, you don’t even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery. Look at some famous examples of personification in art – the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. 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.