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Does Language Shape What We Think?

Do words shape thought? or Do thoughts shape words? It’s kind of like the chicken or the egg question. Some believe that words do shape thought and it’s called “Whorfianism”. Others think that’s hogwash. But a recent study done to an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã, posits that the idea that “the more words you know, the more thoughts you can have” may have some merit. This tribe doesn’t have words for numbers and they count using three designations: “around one, some, and many”. From the Scientific American article:

The lack of number words had a profound and surprising effect on what the Pirahã could do. In a series of experiments, the researchers presented Pirahã participants with some number of spools of thread. The participants’ task was simply to give the researcher the same number of balloons. If the participants were allowed to line up the balloons next to the spools of thread one-by-one, they did fine. But if they weren’t allowed this crutch — for instance, if the spools of thread were dropped into a bucket one at a time, and then the participant had to produce the same number of balloons — they failed. Although they were generally able to stay in the ballpark — if a lot of spools went into the bucket, they produced a lot of balloons; a small number of spools, a small number of balloons — their responses were basically educated guesses.

Could it be that the Pirahã not understand the concept of “same amount”? That’s unlikely. When allowed to match the balloons to spools one-by-one, they succeeded in the task. Instead, it seems that they failed to give the same number of balloons only when they had to rely on memory. 

This actually makes a lot of sense. Try to imagine exactly seventeen balloons in your head, but without counting them. It’s impossible. Decades of research have shown that people can tell the difference between one object and two or between three objects and four without counting, but such fine distinctions with larger numbers like seventeen versus eighteen requires counting. You wouldn’t match seventeen balloons to seventeen spools by sight alone. You would count the spools and then count out the same number of balloons.

If your willing to go down a rabbit trail watch this video.

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