In 1940, a chemical engineer working for an insurance company and moonlighting as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University published a paper that became wildly, internationally popular. Benjamin Lee Whorf convinced a generation that the language we learn as our mother tongue has an enormous effect on the way we perceive the world, and even delimits the concepts we can and cannot think about.
Eventually, people caught on to the fact that there wasn’t any evidence to support Whorf’s claims, and the article was discredited. Out of vogue, any subsequent attempts to explore the relationship between thought and language were outright dismissed for decades. Recently, however, universities such as Stanford and MIT have turned their attention to the subject, and research from these institutions has begun to suggest a more nuanced but still profound connection between our mother tongues and the way we see the world.
“Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey,” explains Roman Jakobson, a notable linguist and literary theorist. Whorf’s discredited assertion was that people without words for certain concepts cannot actually think about those concepts. The more nuanced reality seems to be that our mother tongue influences our thoughts through what it forces us to think about habitually. In other words, if we have no word for the color blue, it’s not that we cannot see it, but that we are very focused on talking about red.
Our Internal Compass
When it comes to orienting ourselves in the world, English speakers are egocentric. If you come to my city and ask for directions to my favorite ice cream place, my answer will involve turning left or right on certain streets. In this manner of seeing the world, I think of it as branching out away from me, its center – so things are to the left or right of me, or I need to go forward, backward, up or down. These are called relative directions. If you go to North Queensland, Australia, and ask someone who speaks Guugu Yimithirr, you won’t hear words like “left” or “right,” because they don’t exist in that language. The four cardinal directions are north, east, south, and west. Speakers of many aboriginal languages like Guugu Yimithirr always describe locations and directions using the cardinal directions, which do not rotate with them as they turn. They would never say, “you’re standing in front of the best ice cream shop in town,” they’d say, “you’re standing north of it.” They wouldn’t ask you to move a little to the right so they can walk through the door, they’d ask you to move a little to the east.
In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at every moment of your waking life. Linguist Guy Deutscher explains that Guugu Ymithirr speakers have an “internal compass” that is imprinted from infancy (studies have found children as young as two using cardinal directions), in the same way English children learn to use different tenses when they speak. Studies have shown that speakers of languages that rely on cardinal rather than relative directions to express location have extraordinary spatial memory and navigational skills. Regardless of visibility conditions or their location, indoors or outdoors, stationary or moving, they have a perfect sense of direction, the way some people in our culture have perfect pitch. There is no moment of calculation before they say, “there is a spider west of your foot.” Many stories are available of what to us seem like extraordinary feats of orientation but are par for the course for speakers of geographic languages. One such story relates how a speaker of Tzeltal (southern Mexico) was blindfolded in a darkened house and spun around over 20 times. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he did not hesitate before pointing at the cardinal directions.
Languages that primarily use cardinal directions to talk about space are found all over the world, from Polynesia to Mexico to Namibia to Bali. It is still an open question whether this convention affects a person’s sense of identity or worldview. If a Guugu Ymithirr speaker wants to direct your attention behind him, he points through himself, “as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant,” says Deutscher. (He is quick to point out, however, that this doesn’t mean that a Guugu Ymithirr speaker does not understand the concept of something being behind her). A language like this places the speaker into a physical matrix greater than themselves by default, in contrast to English, which places us at the center of an ever-revolving personal axis.
The Passage of Time
Another language that uses cardinal rather than relative directions is Kuuk Thaayorre, spoken by the Pormpuraaw people in Queensland, Australia. Stanford linguist Lera Boroditsky and Berkeley’s Alice Gaby performed a series of experiments asking Pormpuraaw people to put cards into chronological order. The cards showed a man aging, a crocodile growing, and a person eating a banana. The participants were seated at tables for the experiment, one facing south and one facing north. The Kuuk Thaayorre speakers arranged the cards in order from East to West, the direction the sun’s path takes across the sky as the day passes, regardless of which direction they were facing. When English speakers did the same sequence, they always arranged the cards from left to right. For the Pormpuraaw, the passage of time is deeply tied to their spatial orientation within the cardinal directions.
Whorf’s studies of Hopi speakers in northeastern Arizona led him to the conclusion that Hopi and English speakers see the world differently because of the different concepts of time expressed in their languages. English speakers divide time into seconds, minutes, days – chunks that are countable. We think of time as something that can be saved, wasted, lost, spent. The Hopi do not talk about time in terms of units, but rather as a smooth, continuous cycle. While Whorf’s point of view would have us conclude that this means Hopi people cannot think about time in units, this is a limited and false conclusion – after all, it is certainly possible for a native Hopi speaker to become fluent in English.
What do we know and when did we know it?
In English, the form of the verb in a sentence tells whether it describes a past or present event (Sarah dances vs Sarah danced). In Hopi, verb forms convey how the speaker came to know the information instead. You use different forms of a verb for first-hand knowledge (I’m hungry), generally known information (the night is dark), information you heard from another person, and so on. English speakers can of course include this information (Sarah told me this ice cream shop is the best), but it is not required by the structure of our grammar.
The Matses people in Nuevo San Juan, Peru, reach an even greater level of precision with their verb forms, including how they know the information and when they last knew it to be true. For example, if you asked a Matses speaker, “how many potatoes do you have?” They might answer, “I had four last time I checked in the basket.” Even if they are quite sure there are four potatoes, if they can’t see them directly then they will qualify the statement. There is the possibility that someone stole the potatoes, after all. The Matses language has specific terms for facts that have been inferred recently or in the distant past, assumptions about different points in the past, and memories. In fact, the Matses have one set of verb endings that show the source of a piece of information, and a separate method of conveying how true that information is and how certain they are. If a statement is made with the incorrect inclusion of evidence, it is considered a lie. So, you cannot simply say, “a llama passed here.” You must specify, using a verbal form, whether you saw the llama, saw footprints that made you infer the passing of a llama, or are assuming based on the general fact that llamas are seen around here pretty often. Whether or not this kind of care in their speech gives Matses a greater sense of truth and causation is still a matter of debate, but it’s clear that they would make stellar lawyers.
80 years ago, it was widely believed that our mother tongue constrained our thought processes for life. The destruction of this theory triggered the rise of its opposite – that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. However, the language we speak can organize our thought and priorities into habitual frameworks that have a strong effect on how we perceive and discuss the world, from our sense of direction, our perception of time, and even the way we present facts.
If I am traveling to a new town with a friend, the first thing I am going to notice about the town is the locations and relative attractiveness of places where I can get dessert. My friend, perhaps with different priorities, will hone in on jogging paths. The images of the town each of us creates will be quite different. Similarly, the habits of mind that our primary language has created in us shape what we look for and see the most. The consequences of this likely go far beyond what has been scientifically demonstrated so far. While we may not yet know how to measure these consequences or asses their impact on cultural or political interactions, we can at least acknowledge that we may not all think the same way.
ALTA offers interactive, comprehensive language classes both online and in-person at our Atlanta language training center. For more information, visit https://www.altalang.com/language-training/.
Maria Diment was born in Russia and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she works in the Translations Department at ALTA Language Services.