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"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

Col 3:23

People Under Influence of Language They Speak

Around the world people communicate with one another using a dazzling array of languages—7,000 or so all told—and each language requires very different things from its speakers. For example, suppose I want to tell you that I saw Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street. In Mian, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea, the verb I used would reveal whether the event happened just now, yesterday or in the distant past, whereas in Indonesian, the verb wouldn’t even give away whether it had already happened or was still coming up. In Russian, the verb would reveal my gender. In Mandarin, I would have to specify whether the titular uncle is maternal or paternal and whether he is related by blood or marriage, because there are different words for all these different types of uncles and then some (he happens to be a mother’s brother, as the Chinese translation clearly states). And in Pirahã, a language spoken in the Amazon, I couldn’t say “42nd,” because there are no words for exact numbers, just words for “few” and “many.”

Languages differ from one another in innumerable ways, but just because people talk differently does not necessarily mean they think differently. How can we tell whether speakers of Mian, Russian, Indonesian, Mandarin or Pirahã actually end up attending to, remembering and reasoning about the world in different ways because of the languages they speak? Research in my lab and in many others has been uncovering how language shapes even the most fundamental dimensions of human experience: space, time, causality and relationships to others.

Let us return to Pormpuraaw. Unlike English, the Kuuk Thaayorre language spoken in Pormpuraaw does not use relative spatial terms such as left and right. Rather Kuuk Thaayorre speakers talk in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west, and so forth). Of course, in English we also use cardinal direction terms but only for large spatial scales.

We would not say, for example, “They set the salad forks southeast of the dinner forks—the philistines!” But in Kuuk Thaayorre cardinal directions are used at all scales. This means one ends up saying things like “the cup is southeast of the plate” or “the boy standing to the south of Mary is my brother.” In Pormpuraaw, one must always stay oriented, just to be able to speak properly. Moreover, groundbreaking work conducted by Stephen C. Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and John B.

Haviland of the University of California, San Diego, over the past two decades has demonstrated that people who speak languages that rely on absolute directions are remarkably good at keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. They do this better than folks who live in the same environments but do not speak such languages and in fact better than scientists thought humans ever could. The requirements of their languages enforce and train this cognitive prowess.

People who think differently about space are also likely to think differently about time. For example, my colleague Alice Gaby of the University of California, Berkeley, and I gave Kuuk Thaayorre speakers sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions—a man aging, a crocodile growing, a banana being eaten. We then asked them to arrange the shuffled photographs on the ground to indicate the correct temporal order.

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