Science Talk

You Say Potato, I Say Cassava: Language, Culture and Perception

In this episode, University of California, Berkeley, linguist Alice Gaby talks about the relationships among language, culture, cognition and perception. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting February 6th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week we're going to talk about talking with linguist, Alice Gaby. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. I just got back from a week in the Caribbean on a Science Cruise, sponsored by Scientific American and Insight Cruises. I know it's a tough life but somebody [has] got to do it. Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie and I gave talks all week, as did five scientists on everything from astronomy to virtual reality, and one of the speakers was Alice Gaby. She got her doctorate from the University of Melbourne in her native, Australia, and is now a member of the faculty in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. We talked on Saturday, February 2nd in the Wajang Theater aboard the Holland America Cruise Ship Veendam, somewhere between Cozumel and Tampa.

Steve: Hi Dr. Gaby, how are you?

Gaby: I'm very well, thanks Steve.

Steve: Enjoying the cruise?

Gaby: I am having a terrific time. Yeah, this is too much fun. It's going to be hard to go home.

Steve: It is a lot of fun. So you are basically studying the relationship between language and our perceptions of reality and the world and how those interact with each other?

Gaby: Correct. Language, cognition and also culture, which I think is the third wheel that often gets left out, but I think its important to remember that culture is there too.

Steve: So, is it indeed the case that the language that we speak affects our perception of things?

Gaby: That's absolutely my interpretation of some of the most recent results that are coming out. There've been a number studies done over decades and many of them have been controversial, but I think more and more the evidence is building to show that, yes, really speaking a particular language with a particular linguistic structure can indeed affect the way you understand the world around you.

Steve: Can you give us some concrete examples?

Gaby: Sure. So, one example of some research by Lera Boroditsky at Stanford and her colleagues has looked at grammatical gender. So in English we don't have grammatical gender, but in languages like German, French, Spanish you use a different, either a different form of the word or a different form of the article, words like "the" or "a" before the word depending on whether it's a masculine noun or feminine noun in the case of German neuter. Now what they have shown is that if you're used to speaking a language with a grammatical gender system, even when you speak in English, you tend to think of objects differently according to which gender they have in the other language you speak. So a German speaker, even when they're speaking English, if they use the word for bridge which is feminine in German, even when they say the English word, "bridge," they'll think of it as a feminine thing and they'll describe it using adjectives that are associated with femininity.

Steve: How do we know which came first—the thought impulse or the language, the word for it?

Gaby: That's an excellent point. We initially inferred that the language had to come before the thought because in many of these cases we'll have inanimate objects that really don't seem to have any inherently gendered features to them and in fact you see in different languages they have entirely different genders, so the fact that bridge is feminine is no predictor that its going to be feminine in other languages; in fact in Spanish its masculine gender. So that's one source of evidence, but another I think more persuasive source of evidence is the fact that you can actually create these effects in speakers who may never have spoken a language with a gender system, but if you say, take a group of English monolinguals and teach them a made-up language that has gender in it, you can very quickly get them to have these same kinds of effects.

Steve: Well, that's really interesting. So that's the kind of research that gets done in this field?

Gaby: Well, that's just one area; there are lots of studies in very different areas. Space is another area that has attracted lot[s] of interest. When I say space, I don't mean outer space, the astronauts. We are actually talking about just the everyday world around us and how we locate objects, so whether if I want to give you directions of how to get to a room do I say, "turn left at the end of the corridor" or do I say "turn north at the end of the corridor" or do I say, "go to the front of the desk." There's a range of different solutions we can adapt to this problem of trying to find our way around and locate other objects in space. I mean, we find speakers of different languages do this in very, very different ways; and there's been a very well documented and well replicated finding that these differences in the language correlate very strongly with differences in how people solve nonlinguistic problems, problem-solving tasks that involve moving around in space.

Steve: So, they are given some kind of a picture problem on an IQ test, but their approach to it will be affected by whatever language they speak?

Gaby: That's right.

Steve: Even though there's no language involved in the test question.

Gaby: Exactly, yeah.

Steve: It's really interesting.

Gaby: Yeah.

Steve: I took a year of German in college and I remember asking my professor because at the same time, I was studying physics and chemistry, and I said, "we learned the word wenn (w-e-n-n) in German, which if I remember correctly can mean both if and when or if or when.

Gaby: Right.

Steve: And I thought that was interesting because in physics we were learning about the Eisenberg uncertainty principle and I said to my German teacher, "Do you think its just a coincidence that the same culture that uses this kind of indeterminate word is the culture that came up with the uncertainty principle, and her response was, "Well, I don't know, but I'm sure you can get a PhD thesis out of it." So what do you think about that? I'm not going to ask you what you think about that particular question, but what do you think about that kind of question?

Gaby: Absolutely, and I think the crucial thing to remember here is that language isnt a straightjacket as it is sometimes made out to be or at least it's sometimes made out that that's what people who believe in linguistic relativity as a hypothesis make it out to be. But instead language is a habit we get used to, talking about things in particular ways, and we get used to using words that have a certain range of meaning as [in]you gave the example [you gave] there. And using this language over and over and over again predisposes us to think about things in that particular way. So we get used to paying attention to different kinds of things, understanding things in certain kinds of terms; and these habits build habits of thought, which means we, if all else fails, our default option is to think about things in the same terms as our language represents them.

Steve: And that can undoubtedly happen—I mean, within a single language you can have two different speakers who are actually saying different things using the same words, right and they're experiencing things differently because of that?

Gaby: Well, that's true, and that's exactly something there hasn't been much research into, but I think there's definitely a lot of potential to look at individual variation and whether having particular idiosyncratic habits, [a] particular predisposition to use certain terms or to phrase things in certain ways, whether that is also going to correlate with a way of seeing things. Of course, in that case its more difficult to judge which comes first, where the causal relationship really exists—are we phrasing things in that particular way or choosing those particular words because we are in the habit of thinking in that way? Or is it that the use of that language is reinforcing our nonlinguistic cognition? And no doubt there is some kind of feedback there; I'm sure its not a case of unidirectional transfer from cognition to thought or thought to cognition; I'm sure the relationship is actually one of bidirectional transfer.

Steve: What kind of research are you conducting right now?

Gaby: I'm conducting a little too much research. In fact, I'm feeling guilty for taking this week away on a cruise ship (laughs) and leaving it all untended, but I have three main arms to my research. One aspect is I do field work in an aboriginal community of Australia called Pormpuraaw; and I've been working with the people there for many years now, and my PhD dissertation was a grammar of that language. But what I'm actually in the process of doing now is saying, well, hey a grammar is just as dry as it probably sounds to most of your listeners, it's a very abstract description of the rules that you need to keep in your head in order to actually use a language; but there's much more to language than just these rules. In fact every language is situated in a social and cultural context, and there's much more to interaction between people than just these very abstract linguistic rules. In fact, there are all sorts of other rules about how we engage with one another that often gets left out. So we are kind of putting the flesh on the bones there, but simultaneously continuing this research into the interaction between language and cognition, which is very much related to this because it's very much anchored by the cultural and social needs of communication. So I'm at the moment collaborating with Lera Boroditsky at Stanford and we're interested in how the language of time—the way we describe time—is affecting the way we think about time as an abstract concept. So time is one of those categories that unless you are actually in the position, I'm unfortunately often finding myself of having to explain it to another person. We feel like, yeah we know what time is, it's kind of obvious, we talk about time all the time; in fact I've already used it far too many times in this monologue, but…

Steve: And we're almost out of time.

Gaby: Exactly.

Steve: No, keep going.

Gaby: Yeah, particularly with English speakers, we are obsessed with time, we talk about time all the time and in fact time is the number one noun in terms of usage according to the Oxford [English] Dictionary.

Steve: Is that right?

Gaby: Yeah, and it's followed by other words for other temporal measurements, so days of the week, hour, so on. So we are talking about time all the time, but if you actually ask someone to define what time is, [they] really can't do it. I mean even physicists and philosophers and others are often really arguing about what exactly we mean by the word, "time." So its something we're all appealing to and thinking about, but not necessarily able to even comprehend, much less talk about. So how do we talk about time? We talk about it metaphorically, and for the most part and this not just in English, but across the world in many different languages. We describe time using words that originally refer to space, so particularly George Lakoff, one of my colleagues at Berkeley, has done a lot of research on the metaphorical description of time in English. So the metaphors we have like time being a landscape that we are moving across; so we talk about "coming up to Thanksgiving," as though Thanksgiving is a location that we are moving towards, but we also sometimes talk about time as something that's moving while we are static.

Steve: Time flew, time dragged!

Gaby: Exactly, exactly! "Thanksgiving is fast approaching, it's racing towards us" And not only do we talk about it this way, but our gestures seem to confirm that we are thinking about either time moving or us moving with respect to time as an object. And other sorts of graphic representations also feed into this metaphor. So it's a metaphor that pervades both language and thought. And some really interesting research has been going on into the different sorts of metaphors that are employed by different speech communities. Now where I come into this is that in Pormpuraaw, this community in Australia, people don't really use these metaphors, even though they're robustly found in language after language around the world, people don't really talk about time as moving or as themselves moving with respect to time. So we're not finding in the linguistic system the same kinds of metaphors as we are finding in other languages. However, when we actually look at how people think about time, we see that there are actually spatial metaphors in nonlinguistic cognition and what's really neat about this is they're entirely different to those of English. So in English we have a very linear notion of time, which maps in quite different and complex ways that I need some sort of graphical aid to convey to you. But while we're are talking about it, the thing that's neat about called Kuuk Thaayorre, the language of Pormpuraaw, is that time moves for them from east to west, so they don't talk about it as moving from east to west, but in terms of nonlinguistic cognition—we've tested this in various ways—they seem to depict it as moving from east to west and this resonates very clearly with the linguistic system for describing space. So there's a very dominant absolute spatial reference system, which means people talk all the time in terms of north, south, wast and west and other directions but rather than speaking about left and right as we do in English; so there seems to be this mapping from the linguistic system of space to time which is very, very common around the world. But what's cool is that this mapping from space to time is going on from the linguistic system in the case of space to the nonlinguistic cognition in the case of time.

Steve: Which is the way they think about it physically?

Gaby: Exactly.

Steve: Do you know is it related to the movement of the sun across the skies?

Gaby: That is my assumption. People don't appeal to that as a reason—when you ask them, you know, "Are you laying these cards out this way to solve a particular task?" but they are certainly very attentive to the movement of the sun. There are plenty of metaphors in literature and in song to the passage of the sun as a metaphor for the passing of time; and also seasons, I mean we talk about "being in the autumn of our lives," [or]so this "being spring chickens"; so there's very much this association, I think, across cultures, although it doesn't seem to have quite the cognitive impact. in our cases it does then.

Steve: So that's two of your areas of research, right?

Gaby: Two of my areas of research. My third area of research at the moment—actually online there are many more than three—but the third one that comes to mind while I'm talking to you…

Steve: [The] third major one.

Gaby: Yes (laughs), I'm interested in basically, how much languages vary. So, what's universal to all languages? What can we assume that all humans are going to care enough about or be restricted in terms of hardwiring in our brains to encode linguistically and how much can we vary? So if we take any one area of language or area of thought that language might want to express, how much variation do we see between different languages and how much can we predict is going to be common? So one of the areas I have been looking at here is in the expression of emotion. So emotion is another one of those domains where [that] it's extremely important that we attend to emotion. We need to know as social animals, we need to know how the people around us feel, we need to be monitoring whether the people we are talking to are becoming upset by what we say, whether they are likely to storm off or burst or if they're likely to punch us.

Steve: Right. I was going to say thrash us up there...

Gaby: Exactly. So we need to be monitoring the emotional responses of the people we engage with, but we can't see into their heads or see into their hearts, to use an English metaphor. We don't have direct access to their feelings, so we rely a lot on some physiological cues, but also on language. And when we look at [the] language of emotion, we find that people talk about emotion all the time. There have been studies done that show, I think, it is 60 [percent] of interactions between a caregiver and a child between two and three will actually be discussing emotion, which is quite astonishing, really. And when we do this, we're not talking about emotions per se; they are not things, they are not like chairs that we can just point to one and say, “Okay, that's a chair, this is the label we're going to have for that thing that we both can see and agree is a chair, but instead we have all these metaphors that try and get at what the emotion is. So these metaphors predictably tend to center around the body and often organs, so [the] physiological symptoms of an emotion. The problem is, of course, there is not a one-to-one relationship between a physiological symptom and the emotion that it's used to invoke. So if we think of love, we can experience love as an emotion and that can have a number of different kind of physiological effects on us; our heart might start beating faster or we might feel shortness of breath or butterflies in the stomach or [we] might feel a little giddy or dizzy and so on and might be flushed in the face; and so no language has to take just one of these physiological symptoms as "the" sign for love, and similarly the reverse is true. So if we take a palpitating heart, that can be a signal of love, but it could also mean we're terrified or that we're very angry or just that, you know, [we] had one too many coffees this morning.

Steve: Right.

Gaby: So, there are all sorts of things that this symptom can signify; so languages and speakers of languages have a lot of freedom really in which kind of symptom or physiological signal they take as a metaphorical basis for describing that emotion. So we find there's both a lot of variation across [cultures] linguistically, but there are also commonalities; so there are metaphors you find over and over again—the same kinds of body organs being invoked to describe particular emotions. So that's something I've been looking at, too.

Steve: Which would seem to indicate that the people have the same physiological reactions across cultures to these basic kinds of emotions?

Gaby: That's right, yes, and again a lot of research is going on at the moment in psychology seems to be confirming that.

Steve: Well, we're in a theater here on the cruise ship and it looks like another event is about to begin in here, so we'll wrap it up; and I thank you very much for your time, it's been a pleasure.

Gaby: Thanks, Steve. It's been great talking to you.


Steve: For more on Alice Gaby and her research just Google Alice Gaby (g-a-b-y) and for more info on Scientific American and Bright Horizons Science Cruises, just go to The next SciAm cruise is in December 2008.

Now it's time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: A nematode parasite causes berries to look like ants, which get eaten by anteaters, which are then infected with the parasite.

Story number 2: Researchers have come up with a way to tell how old a person is just by looking at their eyes.

Story number 3: A girl who received a liver transplant also spontaneously changed her blood type.

And story number 4: Researchers discovered that a species of humming bird chirps not with its throat, but with its tail.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. Male Anna's humming birds apparently chirped during high-speed dives because the air vibrates their tail feather likes a clarinet reed. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Here is the humming bird tail chirp. (Chirp of a humming bird). Here's a clarinet (toot of a clarinet); hey, I haven't had a clarinet lying around, so.

Story number 3 is true. An Australian girl with the O-negative blood type got a liver transplant and spontaneously converted to O positive. Stem cells from the donor liver may have infiltrated the bone marrow and jump started blood production with the liver's blood type. The case was reported in The New England Journal of Medicine. Because of the change, the girl may not need drugs to suppress immunity and stop rejection. Researchers will study the case to see if there are ways to purposely switch blood types and avoid rejection issues.

Story number 2 is true. Crystalline proteins in the eye's lens and radiocarbon dating make it possible to determine a person's age just by looking at the eye. One catch: You've to be dead for the process to work, but it could be useful in helping to identify bodies. That research was published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE.

All of which means that story number 1, about a nematode parasite that causes berries to look like ants, is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that a nematode parasite infects ants and makes them look like berries, berries that birds like to eat. The birds eat the ants thinking they're the berries thus spreading the parasites. For more check out the February 5th episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at and check out numerous features at including the latest science news, hot topics, and blogs. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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