The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis — stated in its strongest form — claims that language determines thoughts: if a language doesn’t have a means of expressing a particular idea, then people speaking that language can’t even conceive of that idea. This strong form has long since been rejected: There are plenty of thoughts we can have without having the words to express them.
But there is also little question that the available words do have an important impact on our thoughts. If a language doesn’t have a way to express numbers above 10, for example, then that would probably result in a somewhat different understanding of the world for its speakers compared to speakers of languages with more comprehensive number systems.
It’s difficult to demonstrate these kinds of differences in the real world, though. Perhaps the different conception of the world comes more from growing up in a society that doesn’t value abstract mathematics than from a particular vocabulary limitation.
Recently researchers have figured out an innovative way around this limitation: They invent entirely new things, and new words to describe them. Take a look at this set of objects, used in a recent study led by Gary Lupyan:
Each object is different, but they all share similar features. We might be tempted to invent just one new word to describe the entire set of objects. Closer inspection reveals that the eight objects on the left share some features which distinguish them from the objects on the right. If we invent one word, “leebish” to categorize the objects on the left, and another, “grecious,” to categorize those on the right, will people be better at distinguishing between the two types of objects?
Lupyan’s team showed the objects to 48 college students, asking them to imagine that these objects were aliens from a faraway planet. The students themselves were “explorers,” studying these aliens. Their job was to figure out which aliens were approachable, and which should be avoided. The aliens were displayed one at a time on a computer, and an explorer appeared on the screen next to them. The students then used the cursor arrows to move toward or away from the alien. If the student responded correctly, a pleasant bell sounded. A buzz greeted incorrect responses.
Half the students received one extra bit of information: the aliens were labeled as “grecious” or “leebish,” as appropriate, after they made their choice. So these students, they received additional linguistic information to supplement the images — but only after they had made their assessment of the approachability of the alien. Did the labels make a difference? Here are the results:
The students who saw the labels learned the difference between approachable and unapproachable aliens significantly faster than students who didn’t see the labels — even though the labels gave them no information that wasn’t available in the unlabeled condition. During the testing session, 8 new aliens that hadn’t been seen before (but were clearly members of one of the categories) were introduced. Once again, the students who had seen the labels performed significantly better (no labels were present during the testing session).
Many of the students in the unlabeled group actually reported that they invented their own names to keep track of the two kinds of aliens. A second experiment confirmed the effect using spoken words as labels instead of written words. Interestingly, a third method of labeling, on-screen location, did not produce results significantly different from unlabeled objects.
Here, it seems, we have a clear case of language influencing thoughts. When people have a label for a category of objects, they learn how to identify objects in that category quicker than if they don’t have a label. They’re also better at identifying new objects that they haven’t seen before.
It’s also clear that training can overcome these limitations — so although language does influence thought, its influence isn’t immutable. Just as we can learn a new language, we can learn to have thoughts that aren’t expressible in any language.
Lupyan, G., Rakison, D.H., McClelland, J.L. (2007). Language Is Not Just for Talking: Redundant Labels Facilitate Learning of Novel Categories. Psychological Science, 18(12), 1077-1083. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02028.x