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Science Report

Whorf was right: Language influences world view after all
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New evidence is beginning to emerge that idea of linguistic relativity, which rose to prominence in the 1930s due to the efforts of early linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, might not have been wrong after all. The Whorfian hypothesis, as it has come to be known, suggests that what language you speak influences how you see and understand the world. Originally dismissed by linguists in the 1970s due to a lack of evidence, and in favor of a more “modern” idea of language equality, the hypothesis is now experiencing resurgence of support.

Researchers Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby conducted a study of speakers of languages native to Australia. These speakers were shown to have an understanding of time and space that relied on absolute compass directions (such as “north” or “south”), rather than the relative directions (like “left” or “right”) that English speakers tend to use.

In one task, Boroditsky and Gaby gave subjects a set of cards that depicted a passage of time. (For example, one set of cards showed a man aging, with each card showing him at a different point in his life.) They then asked the subjects to arrange the cards chronologically, so that the man started as a baby and progressed into old age. In another task, subjects were asked to draw dots to represent different abstract concepts of time. For example, the experimenter would draw a dot representing “today” and the subject would be asked to draw dots representing “yesterday” and “tomorrow”. In a third task, subjects were asked to point in the four cardinal directions.

At first, Boroditsky and Gaby tested subjects from the community of Pormpuraaw who spoke at least one aboriginal language on a daily basis (though they were also fluent in English as a second language). These same conditions were later replicated in California using a native speaker of American English. The results showed that the Pormpuraawans very often portrayed time as passing from east to west. Americans, however, always arranged time as passing from left to right, no matter what compass direction they were facing.

This study suggests that Pormpuraawans are constantly aware of their absolute orientation and that it affects how they view the passage and arrangement of time. The subjects were never told which direction they were facing, yet they were still able to use that knowledge in the task they were performing. Other studies have shown that absolute direction also affects how Pormpuraawans describe the spatial relationship of objects. (For example, they would say that the fork is to the northeast of the plate, rather than to the right.)

Boroditsky has written an article, appearing in the February 2011 issue of Scientific American, which further explores the Whorfian hypothesis.

Further Reading:
Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community. Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby in Psychological Science, Vol. 21, No. 11, pages 1635–1639; November 2010.

How Language Shapes Thought. Lera Boroditsky in Scientific American, Vol. 304, No. 2, pages 62–65; February 2011.


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Popular Linguistics Magazine, Volume One - 2011