In the 1930s, American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued persuasively that language did indeed affect thought. For instance, Eskimos, who parse "snow" into at least seven different terms, must find our simplistic way of talking about it unthinkable, he suggested [see "Snow by Any Other Name"]. While Whorf's views fell out of favor--especially that native language created what amounts to a straitjacket for thought-they weren't forgotten. Now a group of cognitive psychologists has revived the search for the effects of language on the mind, with some provocative results.
Researchers first sought out Whorfian effects in the 1950s, looking at color vocabularies. Some languages chop the spectrum into just two categories of light and dark; others make finer, but not necessarily the same, distinctions. Do these linguistic patterns mean that speakers of separate languages perceive color in different ways? Apparently not. By the 1970s, psychologists concluded that linguistic and perceptual distinctions were independent of one another.
The conclusion stuck. Linguists were and remain convinced by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who discovered that however disparate human languages seem, all share a common, basic structure, seemingly hardwired into the brain. They reasoned this wiring would control the grammar of speech, but was separate from other parts of the brain, such as those that governed perception or cognition in general--making it hard for language to have an effect on the latter. At the same time, cognitive psychologists began to think that words just name concepts, which come first to the mind. "For a bunch of reasons, the Whorfian hypothesis became more than neglected--it was sort of ridiculed," says Dedre Gentner of Northwestern University.
Seeds of the Whorfian Revival
Image: K. LEUTWYLER after LERA BORODITSKY
Then in the 1980s, some researchers started to point out problems with the earlier work. For one, some noted that color perception is probably too biologically ingrained to show influence from language. Further, the results were linguistically biased, says John Lucy of the University of Chicago, who helped usher in the Whorfian renaissance during the early 1990s. Researchers assumed that speakers of other languages describe color the same way as English speakers just because their words matched up with color samples, ignoring subtle linguistic differences. In doing so, "basically you're sifting all the data according to your own preconceptions," Lucy says. So their tests could never have found the language effects they sought.