Which Came First, the Idea or the Words for It?

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Which Came First, the Idea or the Words for It?


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


Our thoughts form our language. Or maybe our language determines the way we think. Which is it?

Stanford University scientist Lera Boroditsky thinks the latter is the better answer to this age-old question in linguistics. In a field that, as Newsweek science editor Sharon Begley wrote recently, "has been notable for a distressing lack of ... testable hypotheses and actual data," Ms. Boroditsky has been amassing evidence that language does shape thought.

The assignment of gender to nouns, irrespective of any direct connection with biology, for instance, can affect people's view of the world. The arcana of verb tenses and voices (active or passive) can affect perceptions of causality and intent and agency.

For instance, the Viaduct de Millau, in the south of France, is the tallest bridge in the world. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, it opened to wide acclaim in 2004. But, Boroditsky says, the response varied according to the language of the acclaimers. German newspapers praised the "elegance and lightness" of the bridge, and the way it "floated above the clouds" with "breathtaking beauty." French newspapers saw it as "immense" and a "concrete giant." Why such a difference? Boroditsky thinks the explanation is that the German language assigns its word for "bridge" - die Bruecke - to the feminine gender. The French word - le pont - is masculine.

I'm not sure I buy it. But I do remember how my seventh-grade French teacher encouraged us to remember that the French word for umbrella - le parapluie - is masculine gender by thinking of it as a manly protector of otherwise damp damsels. That's not a direct quote but it says something that this tip is still stuck in my mind many years later. …

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