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How languages shape the way we think

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"--William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet.

Some people have this idea of language as a collection of different names describing the same set of phenomena. But, that isn't necessarily true. Our language can do more than describe things, it can offer encouragement or discouragement, approval and disapproval for the things being described. (For example, if a set of phenomenon are labeled "disorders", that implies there is a different way to order something that is seen as "correct" and the indicated phenomenon is incorrect. However, not all people would consider the same set of phenomenon to be incorrectly ordered, even if they are different others.)

Language can help us compare and contrast what is important among cultural-linguistic groups. In some cases, this has illustrated how even the physical world is not a simple matter of naming what is there. Rather, as Dr. Charles Frake demonstrates, culture determines what characteristics count as significant and worth attending to:

“…agriculturists of the central Philippines…partition their plant world into more than 1,600 categories, whereas systematic botanists classify the same flora in less than 1,200 species.… [from this] one learns what the Hanuóo consider worth attending to…(Frake 55).

Source: Frake, Charles O. ""Cultural Ecology and Ethnography." American Anthropologist 64.1 (1962): 53-59. Print. (Retrieved from JSTOR on July 19, 2009.)

Noting these cultural-linguistic differences allows us to ask the question "Why?" and expand our worldviews and the possibility for how we else might accomplish something or even accomplish more or more efficiently. This is one of the values of diversity, linguistic and other.

The section of the presentation from 6:25ish to 8:40 exploded my brain. Boroditsky discusses how languages can impact what can accomplish. For instance, the presence of counting words (and which counting words) can foster certain feats of engineering, and for others inhibited it. In this way, language can inspire and from what we achieve from those inspirations, can inspire still further. Think about a world in which we had lost languages that made algebra possible: no airplanes, no computers!

With the current, rapid extinction of languages, what linguistic concepts are we missing out on? What other feats would be available to us today, had not hundreds of thousands of languages not already gone extinct?

Ok, enough of my babbling about various things that have caught my attention in and outside of the presentation. Here is the presentation:

(Boroditsky begins the presentation 37 seconds in.)

To watch the presentation on Youtube, click here

PS The speaker in the video is named Lera Boroditsky.

"Lera Boroditsky is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. She previously served on the faculty at MIT and at Stanford. Her research is on the relationships between mind, world, and language (or how humans get so smart)". --http://lera.ucsd.edu/

More information about the speaker in the video, Lera Boroditsky.

February 27, 2017



"If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." - Wittgenstein

After the great tsunami of 2004, many people from the Western world wanted to help the people of Thailand. One of the ways of helping was to send psychologists to Thailand. They returned soon back home after realising that Western psychology was inadequate to help the Thais. People from different cultures suffer in different ways. I wonder whether this is reflected in languages.


Very interesting indeed.


Well, so much for my plans for this morning. Now I'm glued to the pc listening to the talk from Berkeley it's fabulous. Many thanks and bring on more. Btw I couldn't find southwest if my life depended on it.


Look at your watch, look at the sun, and I will bet you could give it an intelligent guess.


Wow.....interesting!! Thanks for sharing!! Deserves a lingot


I'm more inclined to think it's the other way round, i.d. our culture shapes the language. I have nothing to back it up though, just my impression.


I have a degree in human communication and a degree in sociology. From my experience in these two fields, the research shows that the influence goes both ways, from society to language and from language to society.

PS Not the mention the person in the video has a Ph.D. I've added some information about Boroditsky in the OP :)


I first encountered Lera Boroditsky in Decmber 2015 on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xrmGUhUkXw): The fourth session of the four day Mind & Life XXX conference on "Perceptions, Concepts and Self - Contemporary Scientific and Buddhist Perspectives" held at Sera Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka, India on December 14-17, 2015. "Language and Mind: How the Languages We Speak Shape the Ways We Think" Presenter: Lera Boroditsky (1:56:25)


Thank you this is just what I need right now. I'm looking forward to listening to it.


This topic intrigues me. While I have no formal training in this content (I have a math degree), I think language shapes how we perceive the world AND our perception of the world shapes our language. I remember learning calculus and suddenly seeing applications for it everywhere. Learning the "language" of calculus changed how I viewed the world.

RadioLab has done a few podcasts that pertain to this topic, one with Lera Boroditsky discussing the culture with dead reckoning. You can listen to it here: http://www.radiolab.org/story/110193-birds-eye-view/

Another related RadioLab podcast is about language and color. http://www.radiolab.org/story/211213-sky-isnt-blue/

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