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Humans have debated for a long time whether the language we speak guides our reasoning and understanding of reality. In the 1920’s, Sapir argued that speakers of the Native American language Hopi understood time differently to English speakers.

Sapir argued that because Hopi speakers don’t have any grammatical categories that relate to time, they are not able to understand time as a continuum of things moving from the past into the present into the future. This idea became known as ‘linguistic determinism’ and became part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; the language you speak shapes the way you think.

In a recent TED talk, Boroditsky explores this fascinating question in a more experimental setting and has some amazing insights. In an experiment she conducted, Spanish speakers and German speakers would describe objects with masculine and feminine qualities that corresponded with the object’s grammatical gender. For example, German speakers would describe a bridge (feminine ‘die Brücke’) as ‘elegant’ or ‘beautiful, whereas a Spanish speaker would attribute the bridge (masculine ‘el puente’) with qualities of being ‘sturdy’ and ‘strong’. The bottom line here is that the grammatical gender of a noun influenced the way speakers of a language think about it).

In English, if someone accidentally knocked over a glass, we are likely to describe the event as ‘the man knocked over the vase (accidentally)’. In languages like Spanish or Russian, this construction is not possible and speakers would say something like ‘the glass was knocked over’ or ‘the glass knocked over itself’. Therefore the grammatical constraints of our language influence the way we interpret events – so don’t go around accidentally knocking over things in an English speaking community because you’re more likely to be blamed!

Boroditsky argues that the language we use prompts us to attend to certain aspects of reality and therefore certain language speakers are ‘better trained’ to deal with certain types of cognition. Fascinating stuff!

Students going for English, MML, PPL, Linguistics or any language-related subject should explore the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and work of Boroditsky for an amazing personal statement and interview.

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