How language shapes the meaning of thought anthropology

Linguistics: How language shapes thinking

Pormpuraaw is a small Aboriginal settlement on the western edge of the Cape York Peninsula in Northern Australia. I'm asking a five year old girl to point north. Without hesitation, she points in a certain direction. My compass confirms: she is right. After returning to the United States, I ask the same question in a Stanford University classroom. In front of me are distinguished scholars who have received multiple awards; some have been attending lectures in this room for 40 years. I ask you to close your eyes and point north. Many refuse because they have no idea where north is. The rest of them think for a while and then point in all possible directions. I repeated this experiment not only at Harvard and Princeton, but also in Moscow, London and Beijing - always with the same result.

A five-year-old from one culture can easily do something that overwhelms respected researchers from another culture. What is the reason for the vastly different cognitive ability? The surprising answer is: the language. The idea that language differences affect cognition is in itself centuries old; in Germany they mainly represented Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). Since the 1930s it is often attributed to the American linguists Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941). The two investigated the grammar of North American indigenous people and speculated: If people speak radically differently, then they also think differently.

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Although the idea was initially well received, there was almost no empirical evidence. In the 1970s, the glory of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis faded. It has been almost entirely abandoned in favor of a new theory that language and thought are universal human commons. But now, decades later, there is finally convincing evidence of how language shapes thinking. They overthrow the long prevailing dogma of the language universals and provide fascinating insights into the origin of knowledge and the construction of reality.

The influence of words

People around the world communicate with one another in a variety of ways, and each of the estimated 7,000 languages ​​requires very different levels of performance from those who use them. Suppose I want to tell you that I saw Anton Chekhov's drama "Uncle Vanya" on a stage on 42nd Street in New York. In Mian, which is spoken in Papua New Guinea, the verb would say whether the piece was played just now, yesterday, or a long time ago. Indonesian, on the other hand, does not even reveal whether the performance has already taken place or is still to come. In Russian, the verb reveals my gender. If I use Mandarin, I need to know whether Uncle Vanya is a brother of the mother or the father and whether he is related by blood or by marriage, because there is a special expression for each of these cases.

In fact, the Chinese translation clearly states that Vanya is a mother's brother. And with Pirahã, a language native to the Amazon, I could »42. Do not express street "at all, because there are no exact numerals in it, but only terms for" few "and" many ". Languages ​​differ from one another in countless ways, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the speakers think differently. For a long time it was unclear whether the use of Mian, Russian, Indonesian, Mandarin or Pirahã really leads to individual perceptions, memories and reflections. However, numerous research - including in my laboratory - has now shown that language even shapes the fundamental dimensions of human experience: space, time, causality and relationships with others.

Let's return to Pormpuraaw. Unlike English or German, the Kuuk Thaayorre language spoken there does not contain any relative spatial expressions such as left and right. Whoever speaks Kuuk Thaayorre uses absolute main directions like north, south, east, west and so on. This also happens in German, but only over long distances. For example, we would never say: "These petty people place the soup spoons southeast of the forks!" But on Kuuk Thaayorre, points of the compass are always used. That is why they say, for example, "The cup is southeast of the plate" or "The boy standing south of Maria is my brother". In order to express yourself in Pormpuraaw in an understandable way, you must always have the compass rose in mind.