I went to my neighbor’s house for something to eat yesterday.
Think about this sentence. It’s pretty simple—English speakers would know precisely what it means. But what does it actually tell you—or, more to the point, what does it not tell you? It doesn’t specify facts like the subject’s gender or the neighbor’s, or what direction the speaker traveled, or the nature of the neighbors’ relationship, or whether the food was just a cookie or a complex curry. English doesn’t require speakers to give any of that information, but if the sentence were in French, say, the gender of every person involved would be specified.
The way that different languages convey information has fascinated linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists for decades. In the 1940s, a chemical engineer called Benjamin Lee Whorf published a wildly popular paper in the MIT Technology Review (pdf) that claimed the way languages express different concepts—like gender, time, and space—influenced the way its speakers thought about the world. For example, if a language didn’t have terms to denote specific times, speakers wouldn’t understand the concept of time flowing.
This argument was later discredited, as researchers concluded that it overstated language’s constraints on our minds. But researchers later found more nuanced ways that these habits of speech can affect our thinking. Linguist Roman Jakobson described this line of investigation thus: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” In other words, the primary way language influences our minds is through what it forces us to think about—not what it prevents us from thinking about.
These five languages reveal how information can be expressed in extremely different ways, and how these habits of thinking can affect us.
A Language Where You’re Not the Center of the World
English speakers and others are highly egocentric when it comes to orienting themselves in the world. Objects and people exist to the left, right, in front, and to the back of you. You move forward and backward in relation to the direction you are facing. For an aboriginal tribe in north Queensland, Australia, called the Guugu Ymithirr, such a “me me me” approach to spatial information makes no sense. Instead, they use cardinal directions to express spatial information (pdf). So rather than “Can you move to my left?” they would say “Can you move to the west?”
Linguist Guy Deustcher says that Guugu Ymithirr speakers have a kind of “internal compass” that is imprinted from an extremely young age. In the same way that English-speaking infants learn to use different tenses when they speak, so do Guugu Ymithirr children learn to orient themselves along compass lines, not relative to themselves. In fact, says Deustcher, if a Guugu Ymithirr speaker wants to direct your attention to the direction behind him, he “points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.” Whether that translates into less egocentric worldviews is a matter for further study and debate.
Other studies have shown that speakers of languages that use cardinal directions to express locations have fantastic spatial memory and navigation skills—perhaps because their experience of an event is so well-defined by the directions it took place in. But Deutscher is quick to point out that just because their language doesn’t define directions relative to the people communicating, it doesn’t mean they don’t understand the concept of something being behind them, for example.
Read more: Nautilus