The 19th century Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that ideas inherent in human languages might influence or limit human thought, has spawned a wide range of claims, some little more than urban legend; like the claim that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow (they don’t, Inuit has a half-dozen words for snow, that’s fewer than English, and there’s no evidence they think differently about snow than we do). In the 1960s researchers began to formulate tests of the hypothesis. What they learned is that language was more universal than relative, leading them to largely abandon the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In recent years, though, advances in cognitive science have made it possible to spot experimental differences that might have been missed before. So is there any real evidence now that language influences thought? A new Edge article by Lera Boroditsky says yes. Boroditsky researches cognitive science and symbolic systems – thought and language. She claims to have found solid evidence in Pormpuraaw, an Aboriginal community in Australia:
the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” … The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).
She goes on to describe how the researchers tested whether these differences were actually caused by the language or some other aspect of the culture. While these sorts of cognitive differences may not be as significant as early proponents of the “language defines thought” concept imagined, Lera Boroditsky makes the case that they are both real and testable. This is certainly something to think about when designing machines that will think and use language.
If you’d like to learn more, I also found this interesting video of Lera talking about these aspects of language and thought at a Long Now conference.