LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT
We have seen that the forms and contents of language are very much bound up with the organization of the human brain and with the ways that humans think and perceive the world. Languages are alike insofar as they are the central means for transmitting beliefs, desires, and ideas from one human to another. To accomplish these human commu-nicative goals, each language must have phonemes, morphemes, phrases, and sen-tences, and tens of thousands of different meaningful words. But within these bounds, languages also differ from one another in various ways. And these differences are not only with the sounds of the words—that the word meaning “dog” is pronounced dog,chien,perro, and so on in different communities. Some languages will simply lack a wordthat another language has, or refer to the same thing in quite different ways. As one example, we speak of a certain tool as a screwdriver, literally alluding to the fact that it is used to push screws in; German uses the term Schraubenzieher, which translates as “a screw puller”; and French uses the word tournevis (“screw turner”) for the same tool, thus referring to both the tool’s pushing and pulling functions (Kay, 1996). As we have also mentioned, sometimes the structures differ across languages too, as with fixed word-order languages like English and Mandarin Chinese versus those with a quite free word order such as Finnish and Russian. Further differences are at the social level. For example, such languages as Italian and French have different pronouns for use when referring to relative strangers (e.g., French vous, or to intimates tu). Finally, lan-guages differ in the idioms and metaphors with which they characteristically refer to the world. Witness English, where your new car can be a lemon even though it is inedi-ble, your former friend can be a snake in the grass, and your future visit to an under-ground cave can be up in the air until its date is settled.
Do these differences matter? Certainly we would not think that Germans and Americans use different tools for inserting and extracting screws and that only the French have a single tool for both jobs. At the other extreme, having a linguistically built-in way to refer differentially to dear friends and total strangers just might reflect—or even cause—deep distinctions in the social organization of a culture. So here we consider the possibility that the particulars of one’s language might influence thought (for an overview, see Gleitman & Papafragou, 2004).
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