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  • So, I'll be speaking to you using language ...

  • because I can.

  • This is one of these magical abilities that we humans have.

  • We can transmit really complicated thoughts to one another.

  • So what I'm doing right now is, I'm making sounds with my mouth

  • as I'm exhaling.

  • I'm making tones and hisses and puffs,

  • and those are creating air vibrations in the air.

  • Those air vibrations are traveling to you,

  • they're hitting your eardrums,

  • and then your brain takes those vibrations from your eardrums

  • and transforms them into thoughts.

  • I hope.

  • (Laughter)

  • I hope that's happening.

  • So because of this ability, we humans are able to transmit our ideas

  • across vast reaches of space and time.

  • We're able to transmit knowledge across minds.

  • I can put a bizarre new idea in your mind right now.

  • I could say,

  • "Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library

  • while thinking about quantum mechanics."

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, if everything has gone relatively well in your life so far,

  • you probably haven't had that thought before.

  • (Laughter)

  • But now I've just made you think it,

  • through language.

  • Now of course, there isn't just one language in the world,

  • there are about 7,000 languages spoken around the world.

  • And all the languages differ from one another in all kinds of ways.

  • Some languages have different sounds,

  • they have different vocabularies,

  • and they also have different structures --

  • very importantly, different structures.

  • That begs the question:

  • Does the language we speak shape the way we think?

  • Now, this is an ancient question.

  • People have been speculating about this question forever.

  • Charlemagne, Holy Roman emperor, said,

  • "To have a second language is to have a second soul" --

  • strong statement that language crafts reality.

  • But on the other hand, Shakespeare has Juliet say,

  • "What's in a name?

  • A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

  • Well, that suggests that maybe language doesn't craft reality.

  • These arguments have gone back and forth for thousands of years.

  • But until recently, there hasn't been any data

  • to help us decide either way.

  • Recently, in my lab and other labs around the world,

  • we've started doing research,

  • and now we have actual scientific data to weigh in on this question.

  • So let me tell you about some of my favorite examples.

  • I'll start with an example from an Aboriginal community in Australia

  • that I had the chance to work with.

  • These are the Kuuk Thaayorre people.

  • They live in Pormpuraaw at the very west edge of Cape York.

  • What's cool about Kuuk Thaayorre is,

  • in Kuuk Thaayorre, they don't use words like "left" and "right,"

  • and instead, everything is in cardinal directions:

  • north, south, east and west.

  • And when I say everything, I really mean everything.

  • You would say something like,

  • "Oh, there's an ant on your southwest leg."

  • Or, "Move your cup to the north-northeast a little bit."

  • In fact, the way that you say "hello" in Kuuk Thaayorre is you say,

  • "Which way are you going?"

  • And the answer should be,

  • "North-northeast in the far distance.

  • How about you?"

  • So imagine as you're walking around your day,

  • every person you greet,

  • you have to report your heading direction.

  • (Laughter)

  • But that would actually get you oriented pretty fast, right?

  • Because you literally couldn't get past "hello,"

  • if you didn't know which way you were going.

  • In fact, people who speak languages like this stay oriented really well.

  • They stay oriented better than we used to think humans could.

  • We used to think that humans were worse than other creatures

  • because of some biological excuse:

  • "Oh, we don't have magnets in our beaks or in our scales."

  • No; if your language and your culture trains you to do it,

  • actually, you can do it.

  • There are humans around the world who stay oriented really well.

  • And just to get us in agreement

  • about how different this is from the way we do it,

  • I want you all to close your eyes for a second

  • and point southeast.

  • (Laughter)

  • Keep your eyes closed. Point.

  • OK, so you can open your eyes.

  • I see you guys pointing there, there, there, there, there ...

  • I don't know which way it is myself --

  • (Laughter)

  • You have not been a lot of help.

  • (Laughter)

  • So let's just say the accuracy in this room was not very high.

  • This is a big difference in cognitive ability across languages, right?

  • Where one group -- very distinguished group like you guys --

  • doesn't know which way is which,

  • but in another group,

  • I could ask a five-year-old and they would know.

  • (Laughter)

  • There are also really big differences in how people think about time.

  • So here I have pictures of my grandfather at different ages.

  • And if I ask an English speaker to organize time,

  • they might lay it out this way,

  • from left to right.

  • This has to do with writing direction.

  • If you were a speaker of Hebrew or Arabic,

  • you might do it going in the opposite direction,

  • from right to left.

  • But how would the Kuuk Thaayorre,

  • this Aboriginal group I just told you about, do it?

  • They don't use words like "left" and "right."

  • Let me give you hint.

  • When we sat people facing south,

  • they organized time from left to right.

  • When we sat them facing north,

  • they organized time from right to left.

  • When we sat them facing east,

  • time came towards the body.

  • What's the pattern?

  • East to west, right?

  • So for them, time doesn't actually get locked on the body at all,

  • it gets locked on the landscape.

  • So for me, if I'm facing this way,

  • then time goes this way,

  • and if I'm facing this way, then time goes this way.

  • I'm facing this way, time goes this way --

  • very egocentric of me to have the direction of time chase me around

  • every time I turn my body.

  • For the Kuuk Thaayorre, time is locked on the landscape.

  • It's a dramatically different way of thinking about time.

  • Here's another really smart human trick.

  • Suppose I ask you how many penguins are there.

  • Well, I bet I know how you'd solve that problem if you solved it.

  • You went, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight."

  • You counted them.

  • You named each one with a number,

  • and the last number you said was the number of penguins.

  • This is a little trick that you're taught to use as kids.

  • You learn the number list and you learn how to apply it.

  • A little linguistic trick.

  • Well, some languages don't do this,

  • because some languages don't have exact number words.

  • They're languages that don't have a word like "seven"

  • or a word like "eight."

  • In fact, people who speak these languages don't count,

  • and they have trouble keeping track of exact quantities.

  • So, for example, if I ask you to match this number of penguins

  • to the same number of ducks,

  • you would be able to do that by counting.

  • But folks who don't have that linguistic trick can't do that.

  • Languages also differ in how they divide up the color spectrum --

  • the visual world.

  • Some languages have lots of words for colors,

  • some have only a couple words, "light" and "dark."

  • And languages differ in where they put boundaries between colors.

  • So, for example, in English, there's a word for blue

  • that covers all of the colors that you can see on the screen,

  • but in Russian, there isn't a single word.

  • Instead, Russian speakers have to differentiate

  • between light blue, "goluboy,"

  • and dark blue, "siniy."

  • So Russians have this lifetime of experience of, in language,

  • distinguishing these two colors.

  • When we test people's ability to perceptually discriminate these colors,

  • what we find is that Russian speakers are faster

  • across this linguistic boundary.

  • They're faster to be able to tell the difference

  • between a light and dark blue.

  • And when you look at people's brains as they're looking at colors --

  • say you have colors shifting slowly from light to dark blue --

  • the brains of people who use different words for light and dark blue

  • will give a surprised reaction as the colors shift from light to dark,

  • as if, "Ooh, something has categorically changed,"

  • whereas the brains of English speakers, for example,

  • that don't make this categorical distinction,

  • don't give that surprise,

  • because nothing is categorically changing.

  • Languages have all kinds of structural quirks.

  • This is one of my favorites.

  • Lots of languages have grammatical gender,

  • so every noun gets assigned a gender, often masculine or feminine.

  • And these genders differ across languages.

  • So, for example, the sun is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish,

  • and the moon, the reverse.

  • Could this actually have any consequence for how people think?

  • Do German speakers think of the sun as somehow more female-like,

  • and the moon somehow more male-like?

  • Actually, it turns out that's the case.

  • So if you ask German and Spanish speakers to, say, describe a bridge,

  • like the one here --

  • "bridge" happens to be grammatically feminine in German,

  • grammatically masculine in Spanish --

  • German speakers are more likely to say bridges are "beautiful," "elegant"

  • and stereotypically feminine words.

  • Whereas Spanish speakers will be more likely to say

  • they're "strong" or "long,"

  • these masculine words.

  • (Laughter)

  • Languages also differ in how they describe events, right?

  • You take an event like this, an accident.

  • In English, it's fine to say, "He broke the vase."

  • In a language like Spanish,

  • you might be more likely to say, "The vase broke,"

  • or, "The vase broke itself."

  • If it's an accident, you wouldn't say that someone did it.

  • In English, quite weirdly, we can even say things like,

  • "I broke my arm."

  • Now, in lots of languages,

  • you couldn't use that construction unless you are a lunatic

  • and you went out looking to break your arm --

  • (Laughter)

  • and you succeeded.

  • If it was an accident, you would use a different construction.

  • Now, this has consequences.

  • So, people who speak different languages will pay attention to different things,

  • depending on what their language usually requires them to do.

  • So we show the same accident to English speakers and Spanish speakers,

  • English speakers will remember who did it,

  • because English requires you to say, "He did it; he broke the vase."

  • Whereas Spanish speakers might be less likely to remember who did it

  • if it's an accident,

  • but they're more likely to remember that it was an accident.

  • They're more likely to remember the intention.

  • So, two people watch the same event,

  • witness the same crime,

  • but end up remembering different things about that event.

  • This has implications, of course, for eyewitness testimony.

  • It also has implications for blame and punishment.

  • So if you take English speakers

  • and I just show you someone breaking a vase,

  • and I say, "He broke the vase," as opposed to "The vase broke,"

  • even though you can witness it yourself,

  • you can watch the video,

  • you can watch the crime against the vase,

  • you will punish someone more,

  • you will blame someone more if I just said, "He broke it,"

  • as opposed to, "It broke."

  • The language guides our reasoning about events.

  • Now, I've given you a few examples

  • of how language can profoundly shape the way we think,

  • and it does so in a variety of ways.

  • So language can have big effects,

  • like we saw with space and time,

  • where people can lay out space and time

  • in completely different