An essay on how language influences thought from the pop-science anthology "What's Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science" has been posted on The Edge. Author Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience and symbolic systems at Stanford, writes:
Most questions of whether and how language shapes thought start with the simple observation that languages differ from one another. And a lot! Let's take a (very) hypothetical example. Suppose you want to say, "Bush read Chomsky's latest book." Let's focus on just the verb, "read." To say this sentence in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like "red" and not like "reed." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) alter the verb to mark tense. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you'd use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you'd also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you'd use a different form of the verb than if he'd diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you'd have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you'd use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you'd use a different verb form.
She brings up experiments and other examples involving use of language and direction, time, color and gender, all of which seem to demonstrate that yes, language shapes how we think.
But my favorite is this example above. Only a linguist -- or perhaps a social scientist -- would put Chomsky in a hypothetical.
-- Carolyn Kellogg