Language shapes how we think

🌱 seedling

“Words and the meaning of words predispose the child to think and act automatically in certain ways”

– Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

Cardinal directions

There are a number of languages (I believe especially common in Aboriginal Australia) that are known for not having words or concepts for “left”, “right”, “ahead”, “behind”, and so on, but instead using exclusively cardinal directions for these concepts.

Two that I know of are the Guugu_Yimithirr language and the Kuuk Thaayorre language

What this means is: instead of saying “my right arm”, one might say something that translates to “my northeast arm” depending on the cardinal direction in which you are facing. Of course, later in conversation when the same arm is referenced but one has turned around, it is now called “my southwest arm”.

Native speakers of these language of course have an incredible sense of direction.1 In order to convey meaning, you must always have an innate sense of which way is north, even on a cloudy day.

The very existence of this language is an anecdote for how tools and environment shape behavior because one can presume that such a language would never develop in a culture that spent most of its time indoors.

Abstract thinking

Additionally, fascinatingly, the lanaguge influences the way that speakers perceive abstract concepts such as time.

People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space.2

So if your language gives you a different sense of navigation and how you interact spatially with the world, it influences your perception of non-spatial ideas as well.

In a series of experiments, linguists asked native speakers to put cards illustrating scenes from a chronological series in order. For example, a person aging, a person eating a banana, or a crocodile growing.

English-speaking participants arrange the cards chronologically so that time proceeds from left to right.

Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left.

Meanwhile, native speakers of cardinal direction languages like Guugu Yimithirr and Kuuk Thaayorre did appear not show a particular pattern - neither left-to-right nor right-to-left always, nor away or towards to the body. Instead, they arranged the cards depending on the direction the table was cardinally facing, such that time proceeded from east to west.

English and Hebrew speakers used their understanding of the written word to represent time. Guugu Yimithirr and Kuuk Thaayorre speakers used their spatial orientation to construct their representation of time.

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