Today's New York Times Magazine has a feature article on "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" by Guy Deutscher. Deutscher is a linguistics scholar at the University of Manchester, and the article is from his forthcoming book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
The article touches on three issues of great interest to me. (I was a linguistics minor in grad school, and I probably would have been a cognitive science major had there been such a thing at the time.)
First, the article starts with the ideas of Benjamin Lee Whorf, about how language might affect our thinking. I first read Whorf as an undergraduate (not for any assignment), and I was so intrigued by the idea that I applied for a Watson Fellowship to travel and research it. (I didn't get the Fellowship.)
Second, one of the "case studies" the article discusses is the gender of nouns in many languages, one of the impediments to my foreign language learning. I strongly resist the illogical genderfication of everything. Deutscher writes,
[O]nce gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to. Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life? Do they shape tastes, fashions, habits and preferences in the societies concerned? At the current state of our knowledge about the brain, this is not something that can be easily measured in a psychology lab. But it would be surprising if they didn’t.
Third, Deutscher discusses the remarkable directionality of an Australian aboriginal language:
In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals.
It's slowly diminishing, but I've always amazed people with my sense of direction and place, particularly how strongly it was tied to my memories of events. If I half-remembered something, one of the first pieces that would come to me would be what direction I was facing, then whether I was indoors or out, where the door or highway or downtown or other landmark was, and that would usually pinpoint where this took place, which would remind me of everything else -- when it occurred, who was there, who was speaking, etc.
My sense of direction was weaker when I was a passenger in a car or boat or plane, and, if I couldn't pin down the directions at all in a memory, it usually was something that happened in a dream or when I was stoned! (Those were the days!)
My sense of direction is not as strong now as it used to be. I'm not sure why.