To What Extent Does Language Influence Thought?

2719 words 11 pages
“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” – Benjamin Lee Whorf

The idea that language affects the way we remember things and the way we perceive the world was first introduced by the influential linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (Harley, 2008). The central idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, today more commonly known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, holds that “each language embodies a worldview, with quite different languages embodying quite different views, so that speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways” (Swoyer, 2003). In the late 1990s, Cameron claimed that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was regarded as “that which must be refuted
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For example Figure 2 from Boroditsky’s study (2001) shows the use of Mandarin words sha`ng (“up”) and xia (“down”) which are used in relation to English terms of “last” (previous) and “next” (following). The impact of one’s choice of spatiotemporal metaphors across cultures can affect the way individuals think about time in the long run (Boroditsky, 2001) for instance where native English speakers perceive time horizontally while native Mandarin speakers perceive time vertically.
Criticism against Boroditsky’s research was put forward by Chen (2007) in his study Do Chinese and English speakers think about time differently? Failure of replicating Boroditsky (2001), where he found that native Chinese speakers actually use horizontal spatial metaphors more often than vertical metaphors. However, Boroditsky’s claim that native English speakers use horizontal spatial metaphors consistently more often compared to native Chinese speakers, who systematically use vertical metaphors has been supported in numerous other researches, in contrast to Chen’s single opposition (2007). This is supported by Harley (2008), “Mandarin speakers are most likely to construct vertical timelines to think about time, while English speakers are more likely to construct horizontal ones” (p.97), in line with Boroditsky’s study (2001). Figure 1 The Features of Language and its Impact on Cognitive


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