Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The language you speak influences how you think!

I'd been looking for a good way to introduce the work of Stanford Psychology professor Lera Boroditsky to my readers, and today I found it in this fantastic article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Yes, the language you speak does influence how you think.

I think the first people to put forward the idea that a link existed between culture and language were the anthropologists Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The last two of those are associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that differences in the way language encodes categories etc. affect the way speakers of that language think. There's been a lot of argument about this idea since it came out, and certainly one can argue against a strong form that says language restricts thought. However, Professor Boroditsky has been exploring exactly what the consequences of certain languages are for thought - and in fact, she's finding there is a huge influence between the two. Russian speakers who have more words for blue than English speakers are in fact better able to distinguish between colors of blue. Speakers of different languages conceptualize the "direction" of time differently: left to right vs. right to left vs. below to above. And those who use absolute direction instead of relative direction (N/S/E/W instead of Left/Right) use those directions to organize things chronologically as well as to think about spatial positioning.

I encourage you not only to read this article, but to think about how this affects your writing. What kind of society have you created? What language do they speak, and how does it frame its categories? Once you've figured that out, ask yourself how that categorization system might be further generalized into the society, its beliefs and its behavior. Language does affect thought - so something that shows up in the language should be evident in basic concepts of reality like how many different colors of blue there are, or whether something hanging on a wall is actually "on" it or "up" it. What kinds of distinctions might your people draw that we might not be familiar with?

When I create my societies, I like to see how far I can push these categories and the judgments surrounding them. In doing so, I hope not only to tell a great story, but to show my readers a new way of imagining and conceptualizing the reality that we all share.

I hope you find this article as inspiring as I did.