Category Archives: Science

der/die/das and el/la make you think differently

Okay, so I kept reading about language and thought and came across a fascinating article I had read a few years ago. Chew on this:

A recent set of studies suggests that the grammatical genders assigned to objects by a language do indeed influence people’s mental representations of objects (Boroditsky et al., in press). […] Spanish and German speakers also ascribe more feminine or more masculine proper- ties to objects depending on their grammatical gender. For example, […] to describe a ‘bridge’ […] (a word feminine in German and masculine in Spanish), German speakers said ‘beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender’, while Spanish speakers said ‘big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering’. These findings once again indicate that people’s thinking about objects is influenced by the grammatical genders their native language assigns to the objects’ names. It appears that even a small fluke of grammar (the seemingly arbitrary assignment of a noun to be masculine or feminine) can have an effect on how people think about things in the world.

Lera Boroditsky, 2003

Language and Thought

A Language of Smiles – Olivia Judson Blog –

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. ;)

Is violence innate?

WNYC – Radiolab: New Normal? (October 02, 2009)

John Horgan examines how Americans seem to have a completely different attitude toward war than we did thirty years ago. He takes us on a stroll through Hoboken, asking strangers one of the great unanswerable questions: “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” Strangely, everyone seems to know the answer. Robert Sapolsky brings us farther afield – to eastern Africa, where a population of baboons defies his expectations of violent behavior. Robert is surprised to feel hopeful for a gentler future, but then primatologist Richard Wrangham asserts that their aggressive nature is innate, unchanging, and hanging over them like a guillotine.


Fascinating, as this show always is.

I’m curious about the mostly unexplored reasons why we humans feel so differently about the inevitability of war than we did 30 years ago.

And Wrangham makes a good point about genetic inherence—I wouldn’t expect these baboons to be genetically more peaceful, but the environment seems to be prevailing in Sapolsky’s population. “Nature versus nurture?” As ever, the answer would seem to be “Both.”