Language Perception

The link between language and cognition is interesting though not entirely grasped.

VIDEO: TED Talk on YouTube — Lera Boroditsky

“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

― Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (probably not, but whatevs…)


In the West, we tend to be quite self-centric. We are the centres of our universes, and this has several implications. Firstly, we orient conversation around ourselves; occasionally, we orient conversation around others. Instead, some cultures orient themselves around their world.

Self as Centre

Ordinarily, if a Westerner is asked which is their dominant hand, they might answer left or right. If they are asked to describe where something is spatially, one might answer on my left or right or above or below me. If the person asking is present, they may simply point to the object as a gesture.

Other as Centre

In some cases, we might feel it necessary to orient relative to another? The answer to the question, “Where is the book?” might be, “On your left”, or “You’ve got something on your left cheek”.

Terrain as Centre

In the West, we have notions of cardinal directions—North, East, West, and South—, but we still tend to orient communication around ourselves or others. In some regions, the use of cardinal directions is more prominent than in others. For example, when I am in Boston, I didn’t find many people reference places by cardinal directions, but when I am in Los Angeles, much conversation is relative to head north or head east. I notice that Google Maps tend to employ this. It’s often confusing when I am in an unfamiliar place, and the voice instructs me to travel west toward Avenue X. If I happen to have remembered where Avenue X is, I might internally orient toward that. Otherwise, I head in some direction until Google reinforces my choice or it rather recalculates based on my bad choice, if even nonjudgmentally.

In some cultures, this cardinality includes the body, so in comparison with the aforementioned self-as-centre dominant hand query, the response would depend on which way the subject was facing. Were they a southpaw (lefthander) facing north, they would respond that their west hand is dominant. But if they were facing south, it would be their east hand. This may seem to be confusing to a Westerner, but to a native, they would explicitly understand because they would be intimately oriented. As Lera relates in the video, someone might point out an ant crawling on your southwest leg.

To be fair, this space is not entirely alien to some Westerners. For example, mariners can shift the conversation from themselves to their ship or boat. Rather than left and right, relative to themselves or another, they might refer to port and starboard relative to the vessel. Being on the vessel and facing front (the bow), left is port and starboard is right; however, facing the rear (the stern), left is not starboard and right is now port. So, if someone asks where the lifeboat is, landlubbers may say it’s on their left whilst a sailor might say it’s on the starboard side.

Centring Time

Time is another aspect we centre on ourselves. I won’t even endeavour to raise the circular notion of time. If an English speaker thinks about a timeline, we would likely configure it from left to right equating with past to future. This aligns with our writing preference. For native Arabic or Hebrew speakers, they might naturally opt to convey this from right to left in accordance with their preferred writing system.

For the Aboriginal Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia, their rendition of time was contingent on their orientation in the world. Essentially, time flows from east to west, perhaps in accordance with the apparent movement of the sun across the sky relative to Earth. Facing south or north, they rendered time left to right and right to left, respectively. When they faced east, time came toward the subject, with time moving away from the body when facing west.


So-called modern or advanced societies have developed number systems, but some cultures either have no counting or limited counting, having systems that might extend 1, 2, many, or 1, 2, 3, many. This means that tasks we learn like accounting, inventory management, or comparing counts of apples and oranges are not only not available to these people, they are irrelevant to them.

Categorical Imperitive

Lera tells us about the blues. Not B.B. King Blues, but the categorisation of blue, blues, and colours more generally. I’ve discussed this before in various places. As with numbers, some languages have a lot and some have few; some have only distinctions for light and dark, or equivalents of white, black, red, and so on. Colour names are typically added to a language in a similar order based on the frequency within the visual colour spectrum. I may have written about that earlier as well if only I could find it.

Different cultures and languages categorise colours differently, subdividing them differently. In many non-English languages, pink is simply light red. English opts to assign it a unique label. On the other hand, blue is basically one colour name in English whilst it is further broken down in Russian to goluboi (light blue, голубой) and siniy (darker blue, синий). This mirrors the pattern of pink (lighter red) and red (darker red) in English, a distinction not prevalent in other languages. Of course, we also have variations of reds and blues such as crimson or cyan, but this is rather second-order nuance.

Interestingly, in neurological studies, when measuring a person with a language that splits a colour, say a Russian looking at blues, the instruments capture the event of the subject having noticed the category shift. No such shift occurs in speakers without such a switch. I would be interested to know what the results would be for a bilingual speaker to be asked to respond in each language. Informally, I asked a Russian mate of mine if he experienced anything differently seeing blue whilst thinking in Russian versus English. He said yes, but couldn’t really provide any additional information. If a reader happens to be fluent in two or more languages, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences.

One last note on colour, I’ve read studies that claim that women on balance have more colour names than men, which is to say where a typical male only sees shades of blue, the typical woman sees periwinkle, ultramarine, cyan, navy, cobalt, indigo, cerulean, teal, slate, sapphire, turquoise, and on and on. Of course, many English-speaking males may be defensive about now, arguing, “I know cyan. I know teal. Who doesn’t know turquoise?” Knowing is different to employing, and perhaps you’re not typical. You’re an atypical male. Let’s not get into gender challenges. Rather, let’s.

Gender Problems

Yet again, gender rears its ugly head. I am wondering when people are going to start demanding fluidity among gendered nouns. Sticking with Lera’s examples, a bridge happens to be grammatically feminine in Germans and masculine in Spanish. When asked to describe a bridge, German speakers are more apt to choose stereotypically feminine adjectives, beautiful or elegant whilst Spanish speakers opted for stereotypically masculine terms, strong or long. I suppose she was reaching for laughter on that last reference.

Structured Events

Objects and subjective injection are other possible conventions. Lera mentions a tourist bumping into a vase. In English, one would be comfortable declaring, “The man knocked the vase off the pedestal.” In Spanish, the same event might more often be described as “The vase fell off the pedestal”. Notice the shift in agency and dispersion of blame. In English, we have some apparent need to inject not only a cause but an agent as a source of the cause. As I see it, one might have these several (possibly inexhaustive) options:

  1. He knocked the vase off the stand.
  2. Someone knocked the vase off the stand.
  3. The vase got knocked off the stand.
  4. The vase fell off the stand.

I decided to note the relationship between the case and the stand. I suppose this is not strictly necessary and might seem superfluous in some contexts.

In case 1, a specific agent (he) is responsible for knocking off the vase. This does not suggest intent, though even negligence carries weight in many circles.

In case 2, the agent becomes indefinite. The speaker wants to specify that the vase didn’t just fall over on its own.

In case 3, agency is not only indefinite, but it also may not have a subject. Perhaps, a cat knocked it off—or the wind or an earth tremor.

In the final case, 4, the agent is removed from the conversation altogether, All that is conveyed is that the vase fell from a stand.

One might want to argue, “So what?” but this is not simply a convention of language; it stems from perception—or perhaps perception was altered by language through acculturation, but let’s not quibble here. It determines what someone pays attention to. When an event was witnessed, people from cultures where agency is a strong component, the witness is more apt to remember the culprit, whereas a non-agency-focused witness, would not be as likely to recall attributes about the person who may have knocked it over. Practically, this leads to issues of blame and culpability. Clearly, a culture with an agent orientation might be quicker to assess blame, where this would be further removed from the conversation from a different cultural perspective. I am speculating here, but I don’t feel it’s a large logical leap.

In a retributive justice system, the language that assigns agency is more likely to mete out harsher punishments because he broke the vase, it wasn’t simply broken. The use of language guides our reasoning. This leads me to wonder whether those who are ‘tough on crime‘ use different language construction than those who are more lenient.


I just wanted to share my thoughts and connect language with cognition. I don’t think that the connection is necessarily strong or profound, but there is something, and there are more language nuances than noted here.


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