One of the most interesting and most hotly debated theories in the field of linguistics is called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” or “linguistic relativity.” The idea is simple: the language you speak affects the way you think. Here’s an example from Whorf’s “Science and Linguistics” paper, where Hopi and Eskimo are compared to English. In some areas, English has more words than Hopi, like the “flying things” category in the first panel, but for others we have fewer, as in the example for water on the bottom panel. This is partially because culture affects our language — for example, people living in traditional Hopi culture may not have been using planes as often as English speakers (this article was published in 1940), and therefore there was really no need to denote a plane, a pilot, and a dragonfly with separate words. Conversely, the difference between bodies of water and drinking water could have been more important to their everyday lives.
The idea that language affects your thoughts is somewhat controversial in linguistics. Most linguists would agree that language does change the speaker’s thought process, at least in a small way. However, it seems unlikely that language shapes our thought too strongly. Imagine if one language has, due to its structure, concepts that are totally foreign to another language. One could imagine that the task of translation between the two languages would be very difficult, almost impossible.
There’s a pretty good chance that most of my readers have studied either Spanish, French, or German, because they are so common in our high schools. If you’re a native English speaker, you probably struggled a lot with grammatical gender, both with the memorization aspect and the conceptual aspect. How can a trashcan and a planet be female? How can a CD be considered male? (Bonus points to readers who can guess which of the three languages I took based on that information alone.) A professor of mine once told me she had seen French and German speakers argue until they were blue in the face about whether the moon was “really” male or female. While to an English speaker grammatical gender is just a pain for high school students, speakers of these languages really do form gendered ideologies about inanimate objects.
There are several studies that confirm that speakers of languages with grammatical gender really think of these inanimate objects as literally masculine or feminine. In one study by Boroditsky et al., German and Spanish speakers were asked, in English (to ensure that they were asked in a gender-neutral way), to remember proper names assigned to inanimate objects, i.e. a pencil could be named Patrick. Half of the nouns they were asked about were given names consistent with their grammatical gender — if a pencil was masculine, for example, then Patrick would be consistent. As predicted, speakers were much more likely to remember the names of the objects if their names were consistent with grammatical gender.
In another study by the same people, native speakers of German and Spanish were asked to give the first three adjectives (in English) that came to mind when asked about 24 inanimate objects. The results were very clear: masculine objects were described with “masculine” nouns and feminine objects were described in very “feminine” ways. For the word key, which is masculine in German, German speakers described it as hard, heavy, jagged, and serrated. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, have a feminine key, and they described it as little, lovely, intricate, and golden. For the word bridge, the grammatical genders were switched. Here the Germans described bridges as slender, elegant, pretty, and fragile. Spanish speakers, by contrast, called bridges strong, big, dangerous, sturdy, and towering.
In a separate study by Julie Boland and Robin Queen of the University of Michigan, participants listened to names of objects (in German) spoken by both male and female native speakers. Listeners were then asked to respond, as quickly as possible, with the gender of the speaker (not the noun). Listeners were significantly faster if the gender of the speaker matched the gender of the noun.
As you can see, there is some merit to the idea that language shapes thought, at least in the case of grammatical gender. We can tell that it makes a difference in how listeners think of their nouns, from something as explicit as the gendered descriptions of inanimate objects, to something as subtle as reaction time in identifying the gender of a speaker.