Does Language Affect Thought?

20 August 2014

Does language affect the way you think about the world?

A radically positive answer to this question is a strong form of the linguistic relativity thesis, which says that the language you speak broadly affects or even determines the way you experience the world, from the way you perceive it, to the way to categorize it, to the way you cognize it. This radical thesis is often associated with the early-to-mid 20th century linguistic anthropologists Eric Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, and sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf thesis (though, for the record, there is a lot of controversy about what Whorf’s views actually were).

This notion might strike many as crazy. You might think that how you perceive the world is simply a relationship between your sensory systems and objective reality. Even if the way you think about the world is influenced by culture, personal experience, and upbringing, the grammar or vocabulary of the language you speak plays no role in shaping your experience. Language is merely how you give voice to what you experience, not a determining force on what you experience. 

People like Sapir and Whorf thought that this idea of the relationship between an objective reality and language is a mere illusion. Their thought was essentially that people around the world speak different languages, with difference structural features (grammar, syntax) and different vocabularies (lexicon), and this influences the conceptual system that they bring to each and every experience of the world.  

To consider but one example, Benjamin Whorf spent a lot of time studying the Native American language Hopi, which, he claimed, had no mass nouns. Mass nouns are words that describe substances like water, snow, meat, beer, flour as opposed to objects, like a chair, a person, a bottle. While English and other Indo-European languages have many mass nouns as well as count nouns, other languages like Japanese have entirely mass nouns with no or almost no count nouns. Hopi, Whorf claimed, has only count nouns. Whorf thought this difference in language reflected a very different categorization of the physical world. While for the speaker of a European language, the philosophical idea of an underlying substance or matter, which has extension but is not obviously bounded in any way, that can then be formed into an object (e.g. water formed into a bottle of water) is basic, a naïve reflection of language. But for the Hopi the world looks very different: this idea of an underlying substance is foreign; a speaker of Hopi does not see the world as full of water that can be formed into various objects, but, at the basic level, as full of objects like bottles of water, glasses of water, and lakes. (Whorf, “The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language” in Language, Thought, and Reality. MIT Press, 1956, 134-159)

The effect of language on thought is an empirically testable question, and since the time that the Sapir-Whorf thesis became popular there has been considerable work done to put it to the test (and there is still a lot of work being done, currently, and a lot more work to do!). For example, Li, Dunham, and Carey did an experiment on speakers of languages that have all mass nouns (like Japanese) versus ones that have more count nouns than mass (like English). This study found that on tasks that do not involve language, there is no difference in the ways in which monolingual Japanese speakers and monolingual English speakers perform on non-linguistic tasks involving masses of substance and objects. Though this study did not include a language like Hopi, with only count nouns, it is evidence in support of the hypothesis that the way the language categorizes the stuff of the world (into substance or object) has little effect on the way the speaker categorizes or conceptualizes the world.

Few people these days believe something as strong as the strongest version of the Sapir-Whorf thesis – that our experiences are largely determined by the language we speak. But there are many neo-Whorfians doing experimental work to show that the language one speaks has some measurable effect on one’s experience of the world. For example, neo-Whorfian psychologist Lera Boroditsky has run dozens of experiments that seem to point to the conclusion that many different aspects of thought are in fact influenced by language. In one case, Boroditsky and colleagues ran a series of experiments testing whether the grammatical gender associated with a noun had an effect on how people perceive the object named by the noun. Unlike English, many languages have grammatical genders associated with nouns, the most common being feminine and masculine. These genders can manifest themselves in grammatical rules like which article is correct to use with a noun, agreement of adjectives or verbs and more. 

Grammatical gender is generally arbitrary – something that is masculine in one language may be feminine in another and vice versa. So what Boroditsky and others tested was whether this arbitrary associated of gender with words had any effect on whether people think of various objects as masculine or feminine. For example, in one such study, they tested native speakers of Spanish and German by asking them to name (in English) the first 3 adjectives that came to mind to describe each of 24 objects (named in English) on a list. The 24 objects each had opposite genders in each language. In general, the participants came up with adjectives that were more stereotypically masculine if the word for the object was masculine in their language and more stereotypically feminine if it was feminine. For example, for the word “key”, which is masculine in German, German speakers said things like hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful. At the same time, the word for key is feminine in Spanish and Spanish speakers came up with adjectives like golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny.

If any part of neo-Whorfianism like this is correct, what consequences does it have for how we gain knowledge of the world (epistemology)? Do experiments like Boroditsky’s imply that German and Spanish speakers actually perceive certain objects differently? And if this is the case, if we do in fact all have different experiences that are affected by the language we speak, can we say that some experiences are more correct than others? Could it be that some languages are more accurate than others? If not, what does this mean for the metaphysical notion of an objective reality?

Comments (8)

Guest's picture


Tuesday, August 26, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Personal experience:  After

Personal experience:  After two years' of German as an undergraduate, mostly learned by memorizing dialogs which we were encouraged to individualize, I spent some time in Germany.  One morning after consuming a reasonable quantity of beer, I woke up unable to get out of bed.  Suddenly I thought, "Ich denke auf Deutsch."  I hadn't learned in German class the vocabulary for getting out of bed and relieving myself.  I threw the switch to English and soon was more comfortable

Philosophos's picture


Wednesday, August 27, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I suppose that depends on

I suppose that depends on what you mean by "perceiving objects." 
I suspect that perception isn't affected, nor behavior (directly), as experiments such as Li et al.have shown, as you pointed out.
However, it may influence behaviors and responses indirectly through associations with other words (as your citation of Boroditsky et al. showed) as well as emotional valence. As indirect evidence of the latter claim, I'd cite the wide body of evidence of cognitive behavioral therapy and its effect on emotion by changing discursive thought patterns. And through changes in emotional valence, behavioral changes may follow.
Beyond that, however, I'm afraid I don't have much to add. However, this is a topic I'm actively reading about as it strongly interests me, so perhaps I'll have something more solid to say about it soon. But I really appreciate your through and evidence-based post. If anybody has experimental studies that demonstrate the effect of language changes (within a language) on emotional valence or activating strong associations with other words, I'd be thrilled for some references to read!

Lito Hernanz's picture

Lito Hernanz

Friday, August 29, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Just as music is commonly

Just as music is commonly thought of as a universal language, the reverse is also true:  language is very much like music.
They are both strongly tied with our emotions. To understand the similarity between music and language it is best to be well versed in at least two languages, but it can be illustrated with a few simple examples. Since I am a native of Argentina, let?s use Spanish and English, and for a word let?s use ?bomb? (?bomba? in Spanish).
In Spanish, ?bomba? can also be a water pump (bomba de agua) or a pastry (bomba de crema). Your fireman is a ?bombero? (he pumps water). Therefore, if you are out in the countryside and somebody wants to show you their bomba, you think of water. If you are in the city you may be in the mood for a bomba de crema (cream puff). However, if you are in New York City you?ll probably think of a building being blown up. In English, the word ?bomb? conjures up explosions, so you react immediately when you hear it. But in Spanish you wait to see if an adjective is coming to further refine or explain what you are talking about, so your reaction is gentler, or at least not as immediate.
Surprisingly, Spanish is also gentler with another act of violence. In English, when you hear that somebody was shot, you will probably think of a dead or bleeding man, a violent scene. In Spanish, however, the word is ?baleado? (bulleted), somehow not so bad.
It?s the difference between listening to Beethoven?s 9th Symphony performed by a full orchestra, or just played on your solo guitar? You may be saying the same thing, but the experience is different.

Karen Lewis's picture

Karen Lewis

Saturday, August 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Philosophus,

Hi Philosophus,
Good point on what I mean by "perceiving objects".  This could mean a lot of different things, from the very character of the perceptual experience itself, to the way we later categorize things in our mind when we think about objects generally, to connotations or associations we have with those objects. Interestingly (and perhaps counterintuitively), some experiments seem to show that color discrimination itself is affected by language.  For example, in this study, the researchers tested how quickly English-speakers vs. how quickly Russian-speakers could answer the question of which two patches of blue were the exact same shade as a third patch of blue on the screen. The thing is, while in English, the word "blue" picks out many different colors ranging from light blue to dark blue, there is no equivalent to the word "blue" in Russian.  Russian has one word for what we call light blue and a different one for dark blue.  It turned out that the Russian speakers were actually faster in getting the right answer on the task when the stimuli crossed the light blue/dark blue border (as in, one patch would fall under the light blue term in Russian and the other under the dark blue) than in cases in which both patches were on the light blue spectrum or both patches were on the dark blue spectrum.  But for English speakers, there was no difference no matter where on the spectrum the patches fell.  Somehow, the Russian speakers could more easily discriminate certain shades of blue than English speakers.  But the only difference is the language they speak!
Here are some things you might be interested in reading:
Lera Boroditsky has some very accessible work in the popular press.  For copies of those articles as well as her academic ones, you can visit her website.
Lila Gleitman also has a career's worth of excellent work on the subject, you can look at her work on her website here.  I recommend her recent handbook entry, written with Anna Papafragou: Relations between language and thought.
John McWhorter has a recent book called The Language Hoax: why the world looks the same in any language, defending the view that language affects our perception of things very little.
I don't know if these are exactly what you are looking for, but I hope they are enjoyable and informative nonetheless. Happy reading!

Karen Lewis's picture

Karen Lewis

Saturday, August 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Lito,

Hi Lito,
Interesting point. While perhaps Spanish speakers and English speakers concepts of bombs or shooting are not different, their associations with the words are.  It would be interesting to study whether this affects, on a wide scale, how Spanish speaking people and English speaking react in situations involving bombings or shooting (I'm not sure whether people have studied this).
Something that comes to mind that is closely related to this point: a lot of political vocabulary is chosen especially to elicit certain emotions, for example calling the very same law "Obamacare" vs. "The Affordable Care Act". It seems that people react to the very same law in different ways depending on what it is called. 

Guest's picture


Tuesday, October 14, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Sadly, I can't read it all.

Sadly, I can't read it all. But, to the question, language has to affect the thought. Thought and expression are deeply interrelated. And expression, on a higher frequency, needs language.Experience has nothing to do with the thought at the start. Any driving force as it's said, induces the experience which gives rise to an expression (self or social) which keeps the movement of thought alive. Now, how does a normal person keep up with his/her expression without a language? When languages have different structures, a similar experience may differ in terms of expression leading back again to the thought and its movement.

Benjamin David Steele's picture

Benjamin David ...

Saturday, January 5, 2019 -- 7:59 PM

I've read some books on the

I've read some books on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It should be noted that Sapir and Whorf didn't support the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. So, it is a bit unfair to name it after them, even as Whorf sometimes used strong language in defense of the theory.

Anyway, there are certain areas of language that, in research, do indicate that the strong version might be justified in some cases. Language does seem able to determine maybe a few key parts of thought, perception, and behavior. I forget the examples off hand. They can be found in the books I own, but it would be a chore to dig them out.

That said, such examples would be rare since more often language is simply one factor among many in shaping and influencing us.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 31, 2022 -- 8:38 AM

I don't know what sorts of

I don't know what sorts of empirical evidence exist to support this. Anecdotally, there are numerous accounts of disagreement or misunderstanding, when "something gets lost" in translation. This might lead to a belief that meanings generally recognized in one language are not necessarily the same in another. But this may not, probably does not, account for differences in culture, tradition, or other social factors, not arising directly from language structure itself. Languages are diverse in complexity: Hawaiian has fewer than ten (?) letters, not counting the vowels used in English. So, can/could/does language affect thought? I don't have enough empirical evidence. But, anecdotally, there are clues. Sounds like a good project for a thesis or dissertation? Or has it already been done?

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