Language and Thought

A Language of Smiles – Olivia Judson Blog – NYTimes.com

A set of experiments investigating the effects of facial movements on mood used different vowel sounds as a stealthy way to get people to pull different faces. (The idea was to avoid people realizing they were being made to scowl or smile.) The results showed that if you read aloud a passage full of vowels that make you scowl — the German vowel sound ü, for example — you’re likely to find yourself in a worse mood than if you read a story similar in content but without any instances of ü. Similarly, saying ü over and over again generates more feelings of ill will than repeating a or o.

I’ve long been intrigued by the effect of language on thought processes or worldview. For example, the tendency for verbs to end up at the end of German sentences loads a whole lot of meaning in the last words of a sentence, and I wonder how that affects both conversational interruptions and listening habits. I’ve recently been introduced (thanks, Zach) to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity which is, more or less, a scientific inquiry exploring my selfsame thoughts.

I hadn’t thought about language’s effect on emotions; that is equally interesting, but doesn’t seem to have been tested in the same way.

The experiment quoted above, though, fails; it doesn’t explain why I love German and why saying things like “Öl” and “müde” make me happy. ;)

3 thoughts on “Language and Thought

  1. Most likely the scowl is attributed to an unfamiliar vowel entering perception. You don’t see Germans scowling all day – I think you get used to it.

    Actually, come to think of it… Germans ARE scowling most of the time ;)

    1. “American subjects, but not the German subjects, rated the ü sound as less familiar, r(17)=4.5l, p< .001, and more difficult to produce, t(17) = 2.61, p < .02, than the o sound. For the German speakers, o and ü were equal in difficulty. Because we have here two samples showing similar affect ratings and similar temperature changes, and because one found the phoneme ü difficult and the other found it easy, we can eliminate the possibility that o was perceived as more pleasant than ü just because it was more familiar or easier to produce.”

      Who knows, really? It’s a long study; I didn’t read the entire thing. O:-)

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