Whorfed17 Jun 2009
I found an interesting essay by Lera Boroditsky on Edge, titled, “How does our language shape the way we think?” She describes cross-cultural psychology experiments that test the ways that perception is affected by language differences.
Even basic aspects of time perception can be affected by language. For example, English speakers prefer to talk about duration in terms of length (e.g., "That was a short talk," "The meeting didn't take long"), while Spanish and Greek speakers prefer to talk about time in terms of amount, relying more on words like "much" "big", and "little" rather than "short" and "long" Our research into such basic cognitive abilities as estimating duration shows that speakers of different languages differ in ways predicted by the patterns of metaphors in their language. (For example, when asked to estimate duration, English speakers are more likely to be confused by distance information, estimating that a line of greater length remains on the test screen for a longer period of time, whereas Greek speakers are more likely to be confused by amount, estimating that a container that is fuller remains longer on the screen.)
I’d like to have seen more historical background – the name Benjamin Lee Whorf isn’t mentioned, for example – and some more critical commentary on the negative evidence. But the positive examples are each interesting and help to show the subtle quality of the effects that today’s psychologists mean when they talk about language influencing perception.