Written for Summer 2012 issue of I, Science magazine.
Do the words we use determine the world we perceive?
If I say to-mah-toe and you say to-may-toe, to call the whole thing off would be rash. But if I say tomato and you say la tomate, we might be living in subtly different worlds. Do your tomatoes have something in common with cars (la voiture) and houses (la maison) and the Moon (la Lune) that mine do not, simply in virtue of the gender of your words? Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, thinks so. In a series of studies exploring linguistic relativism, she claims to have shown that “even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world”. 
In one experiment, for example, Boroditsky and colleagues asked German and Spanish speakers to describe a key – an object named by a masculine noun in German and a feminine noun in Spanish. Boroditsky found that German speakers were more likely to say “hard”, “heavy”, “metal”, and “useful”, while Spanish speakers favoured terms like “golden”, “intricate”, “little”, and “lovely”, which would appear to suggest that German speakers see keys as having more masculine qualities than Spanish speakers do. It is a fascinating claim, but a controversial one. “Unfortunately,” says Professor Gabriella Vigliocco, of University College London’s Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, “lack of replication is a major issue in this area.”
“Language is a fundamental feature of how we think about the world,” says Vigliocco. “Language tells us a lot about what concepts there are, and how we should conceive of the world in general.” But her own findings in experiments with English and Italian speakers do not support the idea that linguistic gender has a conceptual effect – despite admitting that it would be “far more interesting” if they did. “The fact that in Italian ‘the fork’ is feminine doesn’t make the fork more female-like, so to speak, than in a language that doesn’t have a gender,” she explains.
According to Vigliocco, linguistic gender comes into play in such experiments only once speakers are prompted to come up with characteristics for an object. “People use whatever resources they have [available] in order to solve such tasks, and if the language has gender, why not?” she says. “If your language were to divide objects into male or female, then that’s an obvious way to go about classifying them.”
The issue is complicated. “Of course language is playing a fundamental role in shaping our cognition,” she says. “On the other hand, it’s also not as black-and-white or as simple as saying ‘oh, this language has two genders, male and female, so for these speakers all the things that have a masculine gender are going to be more male-like than the things that have the female gender.’”
Of particular interest are the more abstract concepts “related to society, politics, religion, and so forth” that we can only access through language– things we cannot experience with our senses. “We learn to categorise the internal world via language,” she says. Our grasp of more abstract concepts may be more susceptible to linguistic influence than concrete ones. Boroditsky, for example, has also looked at whether our perception of time is affected by the way we talk about it. Though there are again difficulties with replication, Vigliocco is more open to that possibility. “In my work, I always claimed that effects of language on cognition should be assessed one by one,” she says. “But this does not exclude the possibility of an effect for time.”
Brain-imaging techniques are now being used to complement behavioural experiments, which might open up new lines of research. “It’s a two-way street,” she says. “Especially if you are looking at how other systems – like perceptual systems – work and are affected by a specific language.” By monitoring what goes on in the brain while people speak, we can learn how words are processed mentally. New techniques might also help with the replication issues of behavioural work. “They are different experimental techniques that really go hand in hand,” she says.
But what of our initial question? Does the way we speak really affect our perception of the world? “I think there is good enough evidence now that language can affect cognition under some conditions,” she says. “So, really, we are beyond asking whether there is some form of relativism or not. Yes, there is. However, this does not also imply that language is the only force sharing our cognitive make-up. Our culture, our physical environment, and our bodies also play a critical role in how our cognition is shaped.”
 “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?”, in Max Brockman (ed.) What’s Next? Dispatches On the Future of Science.
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