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 — 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. ;)

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.”