Does your mother tongue influence how you think?

13 Feb
The gender of countries in the French language...

Image via Wikipedia

The New York Times recently ran an article on this interesting, if highly controversial, topic that your native language influences how you think about the world.

One of the reasons this is controversial is that, as some languages do not distinguish between past, present and future (I did; I do; I will do), it was thought that the native speakers of those languages could not themselves distinguish between past, present and future, so lacked any inherent sense of time.

This theory is largely discredited now – but the article does pose some interesting ideas.

For native English speakers, as the majority of our nouns are neuter, does this force us to think differently about gender? So, if I said I spent the evening with a neighbour, you might wonder or make presumptions about whether my neighbour was male or female.  But if I were speaking French, I would automatically convey the gender of the person (voisin; voisine) – so you wouldn’t have to think about it at all.

In Spanish, a bridge is a masculine noun; in German, it’s a feminine noun.  In a study, when asked to describe the characteristics of a bridge, Spanish speakers chose more manly attributes, German speakers more feminine.  Is that a thought process that’s inherently influenced by whether the noun is masculine or feminine in your mother tongue?

The article also gives the example of an aboriginal language from Queensland, AustraliaGuugu Yimithirr – which completely lacks terms like ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ (which are known as egocentric co-ordinates as they rely on where the speaker is positioned) but instead only uses geographic coordinates (north; south; east; west), which are fixed, regardless of which way the speaker is facing.

So, if you’re asked ‘where are my glasses?’, you might get the response ‘on the table to the north of you’, rather than ‘on the table behind you’.

Does this mean speakers of Guugu Yimithirr (and the other languages around the world that only use geographic coordinates) have developed a completely different sense of space?

Read ‘Does your language shape how you think’ in full.

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