Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#227: How Language Affects Thought

May 14, 2018

“A rose by any other name…”

We generally think of human language as a way of exchanging ideas. 

That’s not a bad definition.

But bundled into that definition is the assumption that language provides a clear window onto those ideas, and doesn’t affect the ideas themselves.  And yet, we know this isn’t true.  The words chosen by an attorney in a court of law matter a heck of a lot — regardless of the underlying facts.  When Brutus and Marc Antony squared off in Julius Caesar to win over the crowd, the particular words that they spoke made all the difference.  May the best orator win.

But even though we acknowledge the impact of word choice in individual conversations, our intuition seems to stop there.  It doesn’t seem as if the full set of vocabulary available to us — our language itself — might impact the way we think.

In other words, while word choice might matter, language choice shouldn’t.  Any language with a sufficient number of words should be able to get any idea across…right?

It turns out that it all matters.  The language-medium influences the idea-message, and this happens even at the tiniest scales we measure.

It happens even before we cherry-pick the individual words to express an idea.

Sneaking Connotation Into Denotation

I picked the word sneak on purpose, in this headline.

Because (don’t sneer; I’m not being snide!) I’m fascinated by a linguistic snafu that has snuck into our language around the sound “sn.”

“SN” Words

Sneaky, sneer, snide, snafu, snore, snipe, snicker, snake, snoop…

The sound “sn” — in English — starts off a large group of otherwise unrelated words that are generally negative in their connotation.  (There are other words for which this pattern doesn’t seem to fit: snow, snap, etc.  But the trend is too strong to be coincidence.)

For native English speakers who have been exposed to this conditioning since childhood, the association colors our thinking.  If introduced to a new word starting with sn, it’s natural to assume the word describes something small (think snack or snicker) or dishonest (snide, sneaky, snoop, etc.).

This is only one example of many such phenomena.

Another Example: “SL” Words

Notice anything about the connotation typifying these words?  Slip, slither, slug, sloth, slink, slap, slovenly, slurp, slave, slow…


Dr. Viorica Marian studies psycholinguistics at Northwestern University, where she is the principal investigator at the Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Research Group.  Her areas of interest include language processing, language and memory, language learning, and audio-visual integration in bilinguals and monolinguals.  Using modern research tools like eye-tracking, mouse-tracking, computational modeling and functional neuroimaging, she and her colleagues are helping to gain an understanding of the powerful but invisible ways language impacts our thought processes.

It is common to hear neuroscientists quip “the whole world is virtual reality.”  I.e. everything that we consciously perceive is the brain’s indirect interpretation of sensory signals.  We can remind ourselves of this by putting on reading glasses (pre-bending the light entering our retinas), or taking psychoactive drugs, or countless other ways…

Dr. Marian’s work shows how the language(s) we speak — the very “water we swim in,” cognitively speaking — is just one more filter on the objective reality that we respond to, but never see directly.


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Show Notes
  • 00:00:33

    Episode introduction: How Language Affects Thought.

  • 00:01:24

    This Week In Neuroscience: Effects of BPA ingestion on brain development.

  • 00:03:42

    5-Star review shoutouts.

  • 00:04:09

    SDS news and updates.

  • 00:05:28

    Guest introduction: Dr. Viorica Marian.

  • 00:07:10

    The capacity of the human brain for learning language(s).

  • 00:07:56

    The influence of language on perception.

  • 00:14:46

    Language is constantly evolving and changing.

  • 00:16:00

    Evolution of pigeon and creole languages.

  • 00:18:34

    Research on language and eye movements.

  • 00:23:18

    Additional research that Dr. Marian is working on.

  • 00:25:05

    The influence of language on other factors such as reaction times, memory, and more.

  • 00:29:54

    Future directions and further studies.

  • 00:32:45

    Use of language online.

  • 00:34:08

    Digital translators.

  • 00:40:19

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:41:32

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: The dawn of brain surgery.

  • 00:44:27

    Episode wrap-up.

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