Behavioural Science
The Influence of Language on Thought

The phenomenon of linguistic relativity, known popularly as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, holds that our language fundamentally affects how we understand our world; that language determines thought. For example, you may think telling the difference between colors such as yellow and orange is a mindless and easy task. However, spare a thought for Zuni speakers, who only have one word to represent both these colors. Consequently they find this task extremely difficult to complete, as they report being unable to see the difference.

English is far from perfect. The Australian aboriginal speakers of the Kuuk Thaagorre language have developed enhanced directional skills because their language has no terms for left or right; they are instead described using North, South, East and West. As a result, speakers of Kuuk Thaagorre can constantly determine what direction they are facing at all times, even in unfamiliar settings.

Keith Chen, an economic professor at Yale, found that differences in languages had significant effects on how we think and plan for the future. He distinguished between two types of languages: a futured language and a futureless language. Grammar in a futured language, like English, requires us to tell the difference between the future and the present and therefore view them as two separate entities. In contrast, the grammar in a futureless language does not differentiate between the two.

Chen collected data from 76 developing and developed countries and compared households that were similar in income, education, religion, family structure, but different in language structure. Analysis showed that futured language speakers saved money 69% less often than their futureless counterparts. It appears that the absence of a future tense meant futureless speakers saw the future as equally important as now, increasing the relevance of saving.

These patterns have been found to also apply to health and unhealthy habits, with speakers of a futured language less likely to use birth control, 24% more likely to smoke and 13% more likely to be obese. So although it’s not widely discussed, seemingly small changes between languages can have an impact on our skills, health and wealth.

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  1. Gillian Stephens

    You may be interested in the book “Through the language glass: Why the world looks different in other languages” by Guy Deutscher. I’m currently reading it and finding it extremely well-written and informative on this subject.

    • odadmin

      Absolutely. Ah! the art of persuasion doesn’t always need language. Thank you for your comment Daniel. We hope you’re a regular reader.

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