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Language: Effect On Thought And Perception

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2332 words Published: 4th May 2017

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Begley, Sharon. ‘What’s in a Word: Why Language May Shape Our Thoughts.’ Newsweek. Harmon-Newsweek, 9 July 2009. Web. 7 October 2010.

Begley’s article investigates various points within psychologist Lera Boroditsky’s work on language and perception, raising such examples as whether a language’s nouns are feminine or masculine have an effect on how speakers of that language view everyday objects and how separate words in other languages for different colors may even affect how we see those colors. Begley also points out that how each language’s system of grammar can affect the way we describe similar events.

Boroditsky, Lera. ‘How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think?’ What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science. Ed. Max Brockman. New York: Vintage Books, 2009. 116-129. Print.

In her essay ‘How Does Language Shape the Way We Think,’ psychologist Boroditsky argues that language does indeed play a crucial role in how we humans think and how we perceive the world. Referencing her experiments’ results for the bulk of her essay, she maintains that language affects the way we think about’and so describe’not only the concrete but also the abstract like special relationships and time.

Boroditsky, Lera. ‘Linguistic Relativity.’ MIT. n.d. PDF File.

In an experiment designed to test psychologist Benjamin Lee Whorf’s 1956 suggestion that how one analyzes and responds to the world reflects differences in their language’a suggestion long-abandoned by the scientific community, Boroditsky asserts that language has a profound effect on thought and perception. While also describing how language influences perceptions of space and time, Boroditsky demonstrates how differences in grammar contribute to different ways of describing and perceiving amounts, shapes, and other characteristics of objects.

Casasanto, Daniel, et al. ‘How Deep are the Effects of Language on Thought?’ Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. n.d. PDF File.

From experiments conducted to test whether language affects how speakers experience the world, Casasanto et al. suggest that, through on linguistic and two non-linguistic experiments in native speakers of various languages that our grammar does influence how we mentally envision abstract ideas and that language influences even the most basic of psychological processes.

Deutscher, Guy. ‘Does Language Shape How You Think?’ New York Times. The New York Times, 26 August 2010. Web. 10 October 2010.

In his article ‘Does Language Shape How You Think,’ Deutscher offers a general view of the controversy surrounding the question of language’s influence of thought. Deutscher first describes the fallout from psychologist Whorf’s proposal about language and its connection to the mind, and then references other noted experiments designed to test the suggestion. He then depicts the general outcome of these experiments as that individual languages do contribute to distinctions in perception toward objects and space.

Harms, William, and Robert Sanders. UC Berkeley. 31 January 2006. Web. 7 October 2010.

Harms and William begin their review by acknowledging the difficult scientists have in testing whether language plays a direct part in how we see the world. They promote a paper published in the monthly journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggests that language does affect perception, but only in the right half of our visual field; in other terms, what we see out of our right eye. Citing experiments based on color conducted at UC Berkeley, Harms and Sanders describe the paper’s argument that language’which is predominantly based in the left hemisphere of our brain, which processes the right visual field’may help us recognize colors more quickly in our right visual field but provide slower recognition in our left.

Ramachandran, V.S. and E.M. Hubbard. ‘Synesthesia’A Window into Perception, Thought, and Language.’ 2001. PDF File.

In their paper, Ramachandran and Hubbard attempt to debunk certain myths about synesthesia and the people who experience it. Synesthesia is an interesting and strange phenomenon in which a synesthetic person may experience a combination of sensory activity at once, such as seeing the number 7 and viewing it as a dark blue-green or eating an egg and then hearing a high note. A phenomenon not under any serious experimentation for some time, Ramachandran and Hubbard conduct experiments to find links to their twelve overriding ideas and see how synesthesia connects to language and how and why sensory activity is perceived.

Regier, Terry and Paul Kay. ‘Language, Thought, and Color: Whorf was Half Right.’ 2009. PDF File.

Through experiments conducted to test Whorf’s theory of language and its effect on how we perceive and adapt to the world, Regier and Kay’s results suggest that Whorf had the correct idea, for the most part. Using color and placement to test how quickly participants recognized a different shade of blue among a circle of other blue squares enabled them to conclude that separate languages that have varying degrees of classification for colors influences color perception mainly in the right half of the visual field. They also suggest that the amount of distinction a language has between individual shades contributes to the speed of color perception.

Stafford, Amy. ‘Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.’ Minnesota State U, n.d. Web. 10 October 2010.

In her paper ‘Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,’ Stafford describes the thought process behind psychologist Whorf’s proposal that semantics impact our awareness of the world. She also provides different views on the idea, suggesting methods and studies that offer a more rounded opinion. Stafford then defines how she believes Whorf’s hypothesis can affect our understanding of each other and of individual cultures across the world.

Thierry, Gullame, et al. ‘Unconscious Effects of Language-Specific Terminology on Pre-Attentive Color Perception.’ 2009. PDF File.

In an attempt to discover whether language’s effect on one’s perception is ‘driven by conscious, language-based evaluation of the environment’ or if the difference lies in the psychological processing of speakers of other languages, Thierry et al. conduct color experiments. Using the separate Greek words for light and dark blue (ghalazio and ble), and the English versions, Thierry et al. suggest that Greek speakers can distinguish between shades of blue more quickly than English speakers because of the distinct separate words for each color instead of adding ‘light’ or ‘dark’ to the main color of blue.

Anne Seeley

Professor Yerks

Composition 106

11 October 2010

Language and its Effect on Thought and Perception

Even with the incredible advances in technology and science, certain areas of the brain remain a mystery to scientists. As scholars endeavor to discover more connections and illuminate reasons for why we humans behave cognitively the way we do, hypotheses proposed in the past that may have fallen out of favor are being reexamined using today’s technology. One such proposal, known as the Whorf Hypothesis, attempts to show the link between the uniquely human quality of spoken and written language and the effect it has on our thoughts and perceptions of the world (Stafford). This relatively recently revived proposition provides ample room for ground-breaking questions, and everyone from scientists to philosophers have argued for and against it, for nearly seventy years (Begley).

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Benjamin Lee Whorf, states Guy Deutscher, author of the New York Times article ‘Does Language Shape How You Think,’ was the psychologist of disputable reputation that suggested in 1940 that language was not only the medium through which we communicate, but that it defines the way we think and consequently ‘restricts what we are able to think.’ Deutscher explains that Whorf proposed that different languages have such a profound impact on the way we think that ‘Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is’ totally different from ours,’ and thus these speakers do not have the same grasp on ‘some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects’ and actions’ as speakers of other languages do. Though his theory entranced the scientific community and world at large for a time, gradually the idea that language constricts our ability to see reality faded and was eventually abandoned, especially when, Deutscher quips, it was shown that Whorf ‘never actually [had] any evidence to support his fantastic claims.’ Recently, however, new studies have been conducted whose results suggest that language really does change the way we think and perceive the world.

Lera Boroditsky, a noted Stanford psychologist, argues in her essay ‘How Does Language Shape the Way We Think?’ that language does indeed form the way we think about abstract concepts like space and time as well as concrete objects. The results of her experiments on the connection between language and thought (known as linguistic relativity) are fascinating; for instance, in an experiment examining how speakers of different languages process the concept of time, English speakers (who talk about time in terms of ‘horizontal spatial metaphors’e.g., ‘The best is ahead of us’ [or] ‘The worst is behind us”) will point in a horizontal direction (such as behind or next to them) when asked where ‘yesterday’ would be on a three-dimensional timeline. Mandarin speakers, however, use ‘a vertical metaphor for time’ e.g., the next month is the ‘down month’ and the last month is the ‘up month” and will most often point vertically to describe the concept of yesterday. Boroditsky offers another thought-provoking insight: that the ‘fluke of grammar’ in many languages where nouns are given genders actually changes the way speakers perceive those objects. In her experimental results, it was shown that while German and Spanish speakers both understood the concept of a key, they thought about and consequently described the key in completely different ways. The feminine Spanish word for keys is llaves, and were described as ”golden,’ ‘intricate,’ ‘little,’ [and] ‘lovely” whereas the German speakers described the masculine Schl’ssel as being ”hard,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘jagged,’ ‘metal,’ [and] ‘serrated”’ This trend continues when describing ‘abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time.’ Boroditsky urges us to look at famous artworks that personify these concepts, and states that ‘it turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native language.’ Though Boroditsky made no comment of it in her essay, these results raise another question: how would English speakers’who give no gender to nouns’describe an object like a key or a concept like time? Nevertheless, experiments like these are clearing the path for even more intriguing theories about language and thought, such as those conducted in the spirit of understanding a condition known as synesthesia.

Synesthesia, according to V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard’s paper ‘Synesthesia’A Window into Perception, Thought, and Language’ is an intriguing phenomenon ‘in which an otherwise normal person experiences sensations in one modality when a second modality is stimulated,’ like reading the word kindness and seeing it as a salmon-pink color or thinking of the concept of hope and tasting an egg. Though many may at first think that instances of synesthesia are in fact metaphors used every day, such as a ‘loud color,’ Ramachandran and Hubbard propose that it is an actual condition that may ‘[run] in families’ [and] creative people” and is ‘more common in females than males.’ They also suggest that a synesthetic person are more likely to have more than one form of synesthesia if they already have one, such as seeing words as having colors as well as seeing colors when hearing music. As a synesthetic person, I can attest that it is not an imaginary or imaginative event, but an actual phenomenon. Over years, I have encountered constant and various forms of synesthesia in myself, including the word-color association, a letter- and number-color association (as well as a gender association for letters and numbers), and, less prominently, a music-color association. This fascinating condition is an excellent breeding ground for continuing experiments to see how deeply language affects our cognitive behaviors and how we perceive the world.

Using language is not something that we often think about during our lives, and yet recent experiments suggest that it has a fundamental influence on how we respond to our environments and view the world. Once an abandoned proposition, the connection between language and thought gains notoriety throughout the scientific community. As scientists strive to understand just how deeply it impacts our mental capacities, our ability to communicate through spoken and written language remains one of our most profound human characteristics.


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