Does the language we speak influence the way we think? Scientists have fiercely debated this question for more than a century. A July 1 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences bolsters the case against language’s influence by showing that people with different native tongues organize events in the same order—even if that order is different from the one dictated by their native grammar.

Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago asked Chinese, English, Spanish and Turkish speakers to describe activities by using only their hands. Turkish is the only language in the quartet that follows subject, object, verb, or SOV, order (as in “woman knob twists”). The other languages adhere to the pattern subject, verb, object (“woman twists knob”). When gesturing, however, all participants used the SOV order, regardless of their native language. The same was true in a noncommunicative task in which volunteers had to put pictures in order.

The results point to the existence of a “natural order” that humans use when representing events nonverbally, the researchers say. Where such a natural order might come from is unknown, but Goldin-Meadow suggests that it may influence developing languages so that they initially use the SOV order—such is the case with a sign language currently emerging in Israel. Languages are subject to other pressures, however, such as the need to be semantically clear and rhetorically interesting. As a language becomes more complex, she explains, these pressures might push it away from the natural SOV order. Today the two dominant orders that were represented in this study are equally frequent and account for roughly 90 percent of the world’s languages.

One of the possible consequences of a language that goes against our pattern of representation may be that the brain has to do additional work when speaking it, Goldin-Meadow says. “It could be that there is a small cognitive cost to speaking English.”

Note: This story was originally printed with the title, "Common Ground".