There’s an ant on your southeast leg

I’ve just finished reading Lera Boroditsky’s recent Edge essay “How does our language shape the way we think?”.

Absolutely riveting. Just the sort of thing I like reading on a Sunday night, get my brain into a different kind of gear altogether before I set off into the normal week. Professor Boroditsky seeks to resolve an age-old question: Does language play any part in the way we view things, analyse things, think about things? Are linguistic differences alone enough to drive a difference in the way we are?

As is often the case with such questions, we’ve had people come up with angels-dancing-on-heads-of-pins answers forever and a day; there’s been no shortage of hypotheses, the problem is with proof. Or, more precisely, the lack of proof. In that respect, the empirical tests devised by Professor Boroditsky and her team are fascinating in their simplicity and elegance: the tests appear to concentrate on how a particular language deals with descriptions of space and of time.

The case of the Kuuk Thaayorre, briefly detailed in the essay, struck me as wonderful. It’s interesting enough to have a community that speaks of direction strictly on a north-south-east-west basis, as in the case of “There’s an ant on your south-east leg”. What makes it move from interesting to spellbinding is when they apply the same principle when describing time. They show temporal motion on an east-west basis, so much so that the “direction” of time depends on the way they are facing at that particular instant. Fascinating.

Read the rest of the essay, it’s worth it. I’m elated because I’ve found one more thing to interest me, one more thing to delve deeper into.

Instinctively I think that while space and time are valuable starting positions for such analysis, there are actually two more. Relationships. And food.

On a strictly amateur basis, I’ve been consistently intrigued by how different languages describe relationships. For example, in many Indian languages, there isn’t a word for “uncle”. Well, there isn’t one word for “uncle”. Instead, you have words that describe “father’s younger brother”, “mother’s elder brother” and so on. So you don’t just say uncle, the word you use describes the position of the person in the family pecking order. I’ve just given a couple of examples, the entire spectrum of relationship is covered in terms of age and sex.

I tend to think that the detailing of the relationship in this way is indicative of something deep within the culture and represented by the language, similar to the way Eskimos have 12-20 words for snow. Why 12-20? Because Steven Pinker says so and I trust his work in this regard. In fact it was through reading Steven Pinker that I first started dabbling in this question of language and thinking.

Space and direction. Time. Relationships. And food.

Why food? I think that the words for food quite often show themselves to be singular or plural, to be individual or shareable. Like there’s a difference between “stew” and “chops” when it comes to lamb. Stew you can share easily, just add water or some vegetables. Chops you can’t, they’re designed to be counted out. The language of food used by a community quite often shows whether the basis of the community is an individual or a group. My gut tells me that a person’s ability to share or not-share is itself a cultural thing. Language is often a window into culture and values, so much so it can shape them. There’s a Chandler’s Law in there somewhere, in terms of the relationship between language and culture.

There’s probably a line to be drawn into Chomskyist debate at this stage, but I’m not going to go there. Not yet anyway. Nor am I ready to walk the Lakoff plank as yet, despite its obvious relevance. For now, I just want to play around with my instinctive reaction, to add “relationships” and “food” to the “space” and “time” put forward by Professor Boroditsky, whom I must thank for waking me up this evening.

16 thoughts on “There’s an ant on your southeast leg”

  1. I found your post very interesting & thought provoking.
    Language is for sure what most people consider a humans only skill. Which is acquired relatively fast, very early in life for very practical & self survival reasons. And then for most people the ability to learn more languages after acquiring a mother tongue with it’s baggage of culture and values, is firmly set. Making it very difficult or almost impossible, depending on circumstances to acquire more languages. And if one can acquire more languages they have probably done this through their first mother tongue with it’s accompanying culture & values. I do think trying to learn languages is a good idea at any age. But more importantly that children have more exposure to foreign languages to make a far better people world of deeper understand, for the planet’s future and beyond. Language is the window & learning languages are the views & viewpoints.
    Thanks again for your very interesting & thought provoking post.

  2. I was born and raised in Germany, and moved to the USA when I was close to 30. I don’t have proof, but I’ve always felt that switching from thinking in German to thinking in English, has made me smarter. I usually say that it felt like my brain gained a dimension.

    Off to read the professor’s essay now …

  3. Language may – to some small degree affect thought. It may do so in the obvious micro ways anything anyone says affects what you might be thinking.

    But in terms of the larger picture, it doesn’t really seem so at all. Or at least, if at all, only to a minor degree What I believe you’re describing might be referred to as “Linguistic Determinism” or neo-Whorfianism. (From the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.)

    Since you’re apparently already a Pinker reader, I’d like to suggest you consider Steven Pinker’s latest book “The Stuff of Thought” which will hopefully disabuse you of some aspects of Boroditsky’s work.


  4. Excellent post, JP, interesting and thought-provoking throughout, as is the Edge article

    but I’d have to agree with the basic sentiment of the last comment (Scott G) in terms of the overall message here, Pinker’s earlier book The Language Instinct was essentially an eloquent engaging 500 page complete smackdown of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and every word in it seemed to ring true with me.

    Yet though that was the book that inspired my love of this topic, can’t recommend it highly enough, I accept that Boroditzsky’s article may provide a partial counter-example. It just shows that we need to research this subject more, to find out what it really means to be human, so thanks for pointing it out.

  5. That was an interesting read. I see it as a particular case of McLuhan’s medium-is-the-message theme. All technology (including language) is an extension of man. As much as we think we shape technology, technology shapes us.

  6. Thanks for all your comments. Scott, Rana, it is precisely *because* I’d read Pinker’s early stuff that I found the simplicity of Boroditsky’s counter-examples intriguing. I have not read The Stuff Of Thought. I now will.

    For me this is not a cut-and-dried topic, there are many questions to be answered. And exposing myself to different sides of the argument will (I hope) help me learn.

    Once again, thanks for all your comments

  7. One other thing. In many Indian languages the word for “yesterday” is the same as the word for “tomorrow”. Only context tells you which it is.

  8. Great link on a subject that I’ve been interested in (and convinced about- glad to say the research backs up my strong impressions!) for a few years now- thanks!

    My belief that language profoundly shapes our thinking grew from comparing fundamental ideas of Jewish theological philosophy with those of Western Christian philosophy. I found many important concepts with no linguistic equivalents in the English language, and also (more significantly, I think) that these new-to-me ideas were difficult to retain without the addition of new words.

    May try to blog on this too- fascinating subject!

  9. I get away with different things in different languages. I’d never say some of the things I do in Thai that I do in English. The cultural context has a dynamic too.

  10. JP

    Leaving Chomsky & Lakoff aside (temporarily as sooner or later you have to decide where the evidence points).. have you read Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation. Lovely brief book on the topic of language


  11. Again, thanks for all your comments. Dermot, I haven’t read that particular Eco so I will dig it up and do so. Rgds

  12. John Medina’s Brain Rules ( has an excellent, simple explanation of how language, amongst other things, affects how we learn and think, and also how our brains develop. I only cracked the spine on it today but thus far it is very good.

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