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August, 2009

How Language Changes the Way We Think

The Instapaper Kindle integration is giving me a chance to go back and read a bunch of stuff I've been meaning to get around to for awhile. One of those articles come from an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience and symbolic systems named Lera Broditsky. Back in June she wrote a piece for Edge called How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?. The article, is about exactly what the title says and includes this fascinating story from an Aboriginal community in northern Australia. Rather than using relative values to talk about space like right and left, the Kuuk Thaayorre use absolute values like north and south. That means whenever they refer to the placement of anything they need to be oriented. (Broditsky uses the example of, "There's an ant on your southeast leg.") Anyway, she writes about an experiment where they asked people to organize a set of cards that featured a progression like a banana being eaten. When you ask people whose language moves left to right to arrange the cards, they arrange them left to right, Hebrew speakers went with right to left and so on. Check out how the Kuuk Thaayorre did it:
The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on.
August 17, 2009
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