How Language Shapes Thought

How Language Shapes Thought

Module 4 Pages

Linguistic Relativity | What We Do With Language | How Language Shapes Thought | Implications of Linguistic Relativity
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources


We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. — Edward Sapir

Authored by Greg Thompson

Dr. Lera Boroditsky is now (2014) professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. She was at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in 2010 when she was invited to speak on “How Language Shapes Thought” for The Long Now Foundation. One of the leading researchers studying linguistic relativity, in this engaging lecture sponsored by The Long Now Foundation, Dr. Boroditsky brings together numerous examples of research on linguistic relativity, both her own and that of others.

The entire video is one hour forty-one minutes long. You may want to watch it in multiple viewings. Here is a time guide that may be helpful:

  • 0:00 Introductory video about Words (interesting, but not directly relevant)
  • 3:50 Stewart Brand’s introduction of Dr. Boroditsky (Stewart Brand published The Whole Earth Catalog from 1968-1972)
  • 5:08 Dr. Boroditsky’s presentation begins
  • 1:09:45 Question & Answer period
  • 1:41:11 End

Link: Dr. Lera Boroditsky speaking at LongNow.org (opens in new window)

[In 2017, Dr. Boroditsky gave an updated and condensed presentation as a TED talk. You can search online for many other references to Dr. Boroditsky’s work.]

After viewing the video presentation(s) by Dr. Lera Boroditsky, select two examples of how language affects thought that you found most convincing (or most memorable) and explain your selections.

Relativity, not determinism – authored by Greg Thompson

One of the most important things to understand about the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis is that it is not about “determinism”. The argument is not that your thought is “determined” by the language that you speak – as is implied by George Orwell’s classic book 1984.

Rather, as Dr. Boroditsky noted in her lecture, the argument for determinism has been de-bunked. Rather the argument is that the language you speak will affect how you come to know the world around you. This is an important distinction because it means that it is indeed possible to understand people of different languages and cultures.

Relativity in Physics

As should be obvious from its name, Linguistic Relativity was related to the then emerging Theory of Relativity, which was also quite influential for Alfred Korzybski’s thinking. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity poses a serious problem to the way that most of us think about the world. Most of us think of the world as a thing that is always the same for all observers. And yet Einstein’s theory tells us that perspective matters.

This point is not so simple as the classic parable of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and insisting that they are all touching something different. That is a worthwhile point, but Einstein’s theory goes much further than this.

The theory of relativity predicts that both time and mass change with relative velocity as you approach the speed of light. Thus, the closer you come to the speed of light, relative to some observer, the slower will be the passage of time for you in relation to those you have left behind (this has been demonstrated with atomic clocks on the space shuttle). Similarly, as you approach the speed of light, your mass will appear to an observer to have been foreshortened or compacted in the direction of travel.

Thus, if we were to take the elephant example, if a person is riding an elephant that is moving near the speed of light with respect to some other person, then the person riding the elephant (and the elephant herself) will experience time passing more slowly compared to an observer at rest. What’s more, the elephant will appear to be considerably compacted to that observer at rest.

So what?

The upshot of all this is that Physics has come to the understanding that your frame of reference matters quite significantly for the reality that you perceive.

Linguistic and cultural relativity took this idea into the realm of social life – noting that one’s frame of reference matters considerably when one is trying to understand the meaning of a given cultural practice. Or, to put it in a slightly different idiom, in order to understand a part (e.g., a practice within a culture), one must first grasp the whole (e.g., the culture’s system of meaning).

We have already seen some excellent examples of how language can affect our understanding of the world. Next I turn to how our cultural frames of reference can have a rather considerable affect on our understanding of the world – and with very serious consequences!

Cultural Relativity

As an anthropologist, cultural relativism is an important principle. But before anyone think that I am some kind of moral relativist, let me clarify what I mean by this. Cultural relativism, as I practice it, involves adhering to the principles of General Semantics that have been outlined thus far in the course. Most fundamentally, it involves holding off on semantic reactions until one has fully understood the situation and what it means for those involved. Below I will consider two rather charged examples of this kind of thing that have been hotly debated (what might this suggest?) in the media. But first a word on cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism, for me, is a methodological concept. That means that it involves how I go about understanding a situation. Thus, with methodological cultural relativism, one would want to suspend one’s judgment of a situation until one has a good grasp of the situation. This does not mean that one can never say what is good or bad. That is what is known as moral relativism. Rather, methodological cultural relativism (or just “cultural relativism”) involves exploring the conditions in what some other practice exists before making a judgment about whether or not that practice is good or bad.

“Bride Kidnapping” in Kyrgystan

To take an example, consider the practice of “bride kidnapping” in Kyrgystan. Watch this 20-minute video on the PBS website. (As you watch, remember that videos are representations of the world that already involve a lot of labeling and inferencing – i.e. only a few examples are shown to us, so we are already at a disadvantage. At the same time, this particular video is, at least, an interesting representation of the practice.)

Initially, the very label “bride kidnapping” suggests a practice that is cruel. And yet, watching the video, you begin to wonder if, perhaps, what they are doing is not quite the same thing as “kidnapping.” Often the kidnapping is arranged ahead of time between families, and it seems that the bride can be “in on it”. Further, it is important to know that the practice exists b.c. some families cannot afford to pay the necessary bridewealth (money paid from the husband’s family to the wife’s family). “Bride kidnapping” is the practice that these families must resort to if their sons are going to be married at all.

Thus, to offer another interpretation of the practice that may be true of at some or many of these cases of what is called “bride kidnapping”, it may be that these so called “kidnappings” are well known by the bride-to-be and even agreed upon by her (although this is not always the case in the video). It may be the case that, even if she wants to marry the man (or at least is not opposed to it), she must behave in a way that shows that she is not going easily because that would be disrespectful both to her family  since they would not be receiving a bridewealth payment and potentially degrading to her b.c. for her to willingly accept would suggest that she is not worth a bridewealth.

Note that it could still be the case that some or most, or even all, of the cases of “bride kidnapping” are actually instances where the woman is randomly snatched off the street by force and it is done against her will. The point is not to conclude that if one instance of the practice turns out harmlessly, then all instances of the practice are harmless, or that one can never be critical of another culture. Rather, the point is that deciding whether or not the practice is problematic will necessarily involve more than just relying on the label “bride kidnapping”. Instead, we need to take a scientific perspective, understand the situation and the relevant cultural frame of reference and then decide.

Female Genital Mutilation / Female Circumcision

A second example, that we can consider in slightly more detail is the example of the practice referred to as “Female Genital Mutilation” or “Female Circumcision”. We can see right from the get-go how labels really matter. The difference in English between “mutilation” and “circumcision” is dramatic. Whereas the former implies a grotesque and perhaps torturous act, the latter is a common cultural practice that has been widely accepted for male babies in the U.S. and elsewhere for quite a long time. So, then, we have a very practical problem at hand, for the purposes of this module, how should I refer to the practice?

For this module, I find “female circumcision” (or just FC) to be a less loaded term as compared to “female genital mutilation”. This keeps open the possibility that some may find that “female circumcision” is a despicable practice (perhaps similar to how some view male circumcision). Using the term “mutilation” makes it difficult for one to take the contradictory side – I mean, who would say “I support a cultural group’s right to mutilation”? Alternatively, one could imagine saying “I support a cultural group’s right to circumcision”. So, FC it is.

The debate over FC is a rather intense and hotly argued one. The politically correct position (in the U.S. at least) has been to oppose the practice. This is argued on the grounds that the practice is:

  • oppressive to women
  • evidence of male domination
  • is an attempt by men to reduce the sexual pleasure of women

I suspect that most who live in the U.S. have at least heard of this debate and have probably come to the conclusion that it is indeed a despicable practice.

And indeed, at this point, it would be difficult to imagine that this practice could be understood in any other way (particularly if we have heard it called “female genital mutilation”). And yet, on the other side of the issue, there are those that argue that this conception of the practice is a gross misunderstanding.

One rather striking example comes from anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu, an anthropologist who received her PhD from the London School of Economics). In an essay entitled “Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision”, Dr. Ahmadu writes of her own experience of female circumcision. As a woman from Sierra Leone living in the U.S., at 22 years of age, she chose to go back to Sierra Leone to be circumcised – as was standard part of entry into “womanhood” for Sierra Leonean women. As Ahmadu describes her experience of the practice, it was almost exactly the opposite of what most Americans think of the practice. First, it was a practice that was performed solely by women. This was an important part of the ritual because it involved the women removing themselves from the community to undertake the practice away from the men. Second, she argues that it was, for her, not at all a sign of patriarchal power (i.e. the power of men) but rather was a realization of the power of women because the practice could only be performed by women and because the practice involved getting rid of a kind of bodily maleness and becoming more fully female Finally, she argues, and further medical research supports her on this point, that her experience of pleasure during sexual activity was not affected by the fact that she was circumcised.

If you have now read the article and my explication, perhaps you are beginning to be convinced that this might not be the horrific practice of male domination that we thought it to be.

And as with “bride kidnapping”, following the principle of non-allness would mean that just because one instance of a practice was shown to be acceptable this does not mean that we should conclude that all instances are acceptable. But it at least opens us to the possibility that this practice might mean something different to the people who are undertaking it than it means to us.

If you are interested in further reading on the topic, here is a link to an article by Richard Shweder, an anthropologist who has addressed the topic in some detail (and he is quick to acknowledge that he may not be the best person to discuss it since he is a white, Western, male! But the article gives more historical and social perspective on the debate around the practice).


Module 4 Pages

Linguistic Relativity | What We Do With Language | How Language Shapes Thought | Implications of Linguistic Relativity
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources