Which came first, the idea or the words for it?

A Stanford linguist's research suggests that language shapes thought, rather than the other way around.

Our thoughts form our language. Or maybe our language determines the way we think. Which is it?

Stanford University scientist Lera Boroditsky thinks the latter is the better answer to this age-old question in linguistics. In a field that, as Newsweek science editor Sharon Begley wrote recently, "has been notable for a distressing lack of ... testable hypotheses and actual data," Ms. Boroditsky has been amassing evidence that language does shape thought.

The assignment of gender to nouns, irrespective of any direct connection with biology, for instance, can affect people's view of the world. The arcana of verb tenses and voices (active or passive) can affect perceptions of causality and intent and agency.

For instance, the Viaduct de Millau, in the south of France, is the tallest bridge in the world. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, it opened to wide acclaim in 2004. But, Boroditsky says, the response varied according to the language of the acclaimers. German newspapers praised the "elegance and lightness" of the bridge, and the way it "floated above the clouds" with "breathtaking beauty." French newspapers saw it as "immense" and a "concrete giant." Why such a difference? Boroditsky thinks the explanation is that the German language assigns its word for "bridge" – die Brücke – to the feminine gender. The French word – le pont – is masculine.

I'm not sure I buy it. But I do remember how my seventh-grade French teacher encouraged us to remember that the French word for umbrella – le parapluie – is masculine gender by thinking of it as a manly protector of otherwise damp damsels. That's not a direct quote but it says something that this tip is still stuck in my mind many years later.

Begley's column on Boroditsky mentioned linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who, with his mentor at Yale, Edward Sapir, developed the Sapir-Whorf Thesis. Sapir and Whorf posited language "as a finite array of formal (lexical and grammatical) categories that group an infinite variety of experiences into usable classes, vary across cultures, and, as a guide to the interpretation of experiences, influence thought." (Thank you, Columbia Encyclopedia!)

Whorf was somewhat unusual in the realm of academe, in that he had a day job with the Hartford Insurance Company. He investigated the causes of industrial fires. And his fire inspection work contributed to his work as a linguist.

As an inspector, he looked for evidence of such things as defective wiring. "But in due course it became evident that not only a physical situation qua physics, but the meaning of that situation to people, was sometimes a factor, through the behavior of people, in the start of a fire."

For example, he noted that people tend to act with "great care" around items labeled "gasoline drums." Around "empty gasoline drums," on the other hand, behavior "will tend to be different – careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about."

He continued, "Yet the 'empty' drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor. Physically, the situation is hazardous, but the linguistic analysis according to regular analogy must employ the word 'empty,' which inevitably suggests a lack of hazard."

Are there ideas that fail to take form in our minds because we lack words for them?

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