Our language and our reality

As someone that studied the effects of bilingualism on cognitive flexibility in my undergraduate years, this BBC article titled “Why speaking English can make you poor when you retire” caught my eye. It reports on some new work by behavioural economist Keith Chen at Yale about how the language we speak may affect how we spend money, and our health.

Not Benjamin Lee Whorf of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The idea that the language we speak may affect our “world view” and how we think about things is not a new one. It’s an idea that was put forth in the 1930s by linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf (sadly not related to Worf, Son of Mogh, pictured left). For example, did you know that in Turkish, when you tell a story, you have to grammatically mark whether or not you were there when it happened? Having to pay attention to something like that when you choose the words to tell the story might mean that you attend to things you wouldn’t otherwise, say, if you were speaking English and didn’t have to mark whether or not you were there when it happened. Another example: in a Brazilian tribe language, the only numbers that exist are one, two, and many. There is some suggestion that this affects cognition in those speakers. It’s very interesting (and sometimes controversial) stuff. The idea that grammar affects the way we think about our reality is called the Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativity hypothesis, and it’s an area that John Lucy (one of my favourite professors from my alma mater, The University of Chicago) has worked on extensively, including in his book, Grammatical categories and cognition, well worth a read.

Read the BBC article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21518574


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