Linguistics and Thinking

The Economist writes that “languages may be more different from each other than is currently supposed. That may affect the way people think.”

A project that Dr David Gil, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, is just beginning in Indonesia, in collaboration with Lera Boroditsky, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is examining correlations between the way concepts are expressed in languages and how native speakers of these languages think. This is a test of a hypothesis first made by Benjamin Lee Whorf, an early 20th-century American linguist, that the structure of language affects the way people think. Though Whorf’s hypothesis fell into disfavour half a century ago, it is now undergoing something of a revival.

Dr Boroditsky’s experiment is simple. People are shown three pictures, one of a man about to kick a ball, one of the same man having just kicked a ball, and a third of a different man who is about to kick a ball. They are then asked which two of the three are the most similar. Indonesians generally choose the first two pictures, which have the same man in them, while English speakers are likely to identify the two pictures that show the ball about to be kickedan emphasis on the temporal, rather than the spatial, relationship between the principal objects in the picture.

Dr Gil believes that this might be because time is, in English, an integral grammatical conceptevery verb must have a tense, be it past, present or future. By contrast, in Indonesian, expressing a verb’s tense is optional, and not always done. In support of Whorf’s idea, Dr Gil half-jokingly cites the fact that Indonesians always seem to be running late. But there is more systematic evidence, too. For example, native Indonesian speakers who also speak English fall between the two groups of monoglots in the experiment. Dr Gil supposes that their thought processes are influenced by their knowledge of both English and Indonesian grammar.

Demonstrating any sort of causal link would, nevertheless, be hard. Indeed, the first challenge the researchers must surmount if they are to prove Whorf correct is to show that English and Indonesian speakers do, in fact, think differently about time, and are not answering questions in different ways for some other reason. If that does prove to be the case, says Dr Gil, their remains the thorny question of whether it is the differences in language of the two groups that influences their conception of time, or vice versa.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.