These questions touch on all the major controversies in the study of mind, with important implications for politics, law and religion. Yet very little empirical work had been done on these questions until recently.
The idea that language might shape thought was for a long time considered untestable at best and more often simply crazy and wrong. Now, a flurry of new cognitive science research is showing that in fact, language does profoundly influence how we see the world.
The question of whether languages shape the way we think goes back centuries; Charlemagne proclaimed that "to have a second language is to have a second soul." But the idea went out of favor with scientists when Noam Chomsky's theories of language gained popularity in the 1960s and '70s.
Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages—essentially, that languages don't really differ from one another in significant ways. And because languages didn't differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking.
The search for linguistic universals yielded interesting data on languages, but after decades of work, not a single proposed universal has withstood scrutiny.
Instead, as linguists probed deeper into the world's languages (7,000 or so, only a fraction of them analyzed), innumerable unpredictable differences emerged.
Of course, just because people talk differently doesn't necessarily mean they think differently. In the past decade, cognitive scientists have begun to measure not just how people talk, but also how they think, asking whether our understanding of even such fundamental domains of experience as space, time and causality could be constructed by language.
Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.
Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.
The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favour of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn't remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why?
In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: "The vase
broke itself," rather than "John broke the vase."
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