Lera Boroditsky with children in Pormpuraaw, an Aboriginal community in Australia

Does language shape the way we think? For many linguists, the answer is no. From the 1970s through the 1990s, the accepted theory was that all languages have a common underlying structure, which means that even though the sounds we make and the words we choose may vary, it does not follow that our cognitive processes are different. As a graduate student in cognitive psychology at Stanford University, Lera Boroditsky questioned the veracity of this underlying structure — which, incidentally, has never been specified, despite decades of effort — by asking whether commonly used metaphors such as “the best is ahead of us” or “the worst is behind us” reveal something about the way people think about time.

“I did a few experiments and they seemed to be telling an interesting story,” Boroditsky said. When she shared the results with her advisor, he told her that if she were right then she would be contradicting a subject that linguists had considered closed for years, so it was probable that she was wrong about the metaphor question and she should go back and take a closer look.

“In the 1970s, Noam Chomsky became an incredible force in linguistics, and he put forward the idea that the differences in languages are just on the surface. It’s a beautiful idea,” she said. “It would be so mathematically elegant if there was one underlying structure that created all of these things that look so different.” But that would require that every distinction between languages be encoded in the cognitive repertoire of every speaker of every language, and because human attention and memory are so limited, “that becomes an unlikely hypothesis. So, I thought that one possibility was that I wrong, but another possibility was that language does shape the way we think, and that if you have different metaphors you would in fact think about time differently. And I realized that I had developed the tools to ask that question empirically. I thought it was a really simple question and that I’d do a study or two, answer it, and move on.”

Whether or not language shapes thought turned out to be such a charged, controversial, and absorbing subject that Boroditsky has stuck with it for 20 years. In the early days of her research she was considered a trailblazer. However, she said that the relationship between language and thought has become a more popular field during the last decade, and she is no longer a lone wolf. Now an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, she has also served on the faculties of MIT and Stanford. Boroditsky discusses her work in “How the Languages We Speak Shape the Way We Think,” in a School for Advanced Research lecture, on Thursday, May 18, at the James A. Little Theater.

Among other locations, Boroditsky’s research has taken her to Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, where speakers of the indigenous language use cardinal directions instead of terms like “left” and “right.” “Which means you say things like ‘There’s an ant on your southwest leg,’ ” Boroditsky wrote in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article. To understand how the Pormpuraawans think about time, she and a colleague showed people a shuffled set of pictures of a temporal progression — a banana being eaten or a man at varying ages — and asked them to put them in chronological order. English speakers will arrange the pictures from left to right, which is the same direction in which they read, and Hebrew speakers place them right to left, for the same reason. Pormpuraawans arranged time from east to west. “That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time,” she wrote.

Another question Boroditsky asks is whether what information we include in our sentences shapes the way we observe and perceive the world. For instance, English speakers use the same grammatical construction to talk about things that are accidental and things that are intentional. “If I intended to break a vase, I would say ‘I broke the vase.’ If I did it accidentally I would still say ‘I broke the vase,’ ” she said. “I could also say I broke my arm, which would be impossible to say in many languages because, assuming you’re not out to break your own arm, it’s almost always an accident. Spanish makes a more astute distinction, so when something is an accident you might say ‘the vase broke’ or ‘the vase broke itself.’ ” What researchers have found is that when it comes to witnessing events, English speakers remember more about who was involved, while Spanish speakers are better at remembering whether or not it was an accident. “You have two groups of people witnessing the same event, and they remember different things because of what language specifically encodes.”

In assigning blame, English makes it easy to distance oneself from an event. This falls under the concept of linguistic agency. To explain this, Boroditsky offered the infamous hunting incident in which Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot his friend Harry Whittington. “It doesn’t take very long to shoot someone in the face. It’s a split-second, relatively simple event. But language allows us to create any number of descriptors for what happened. I can say, ‘Cheney shot Whittington.’ I can say ‘Whittington got shot’ and not include Cheney. I can say ‘Whittington got peppered pretty good,’ focusing on the manner of the shooting and the outcome. Cheney, taking full responsibility, said something like, ‘Ultimately, I’m the guy that pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry.’ Think about that sentence. We’re talking about a split-second event that he’s made into a long chain of events that he happened to be at one end of. I can use a single verb to say ‘I cured polio’ and I can also use three verbs to say ‘I shot my friend in the face.’ ”

The Turkish language draws fine distinctions when it comes to issues of agency and witness because speakers must include in the verb how they acquired their information. Seeing something with your own eyes requires a different verb form than something you read or heard about. This concept is intriguing in the context of the current problem of “fake news” in the United States, because English speakers must choose from an assortment of words to distinguish between something that is true or false, first-hand or second-hand knowledge, etc. — if these distinctions are made at all. Does the structure of Turkish grammar provide speakers with a more intrinsic capacity for critical thought than English does?

“I wish we knew the answer,” Boroditsky said. “I tried to do research on this for many years but could never come up with a paradigm that would give me stable results I could trust.”

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