To see how language shapes experience, take a visit to wine country.
A vineyard doesn’t take shape naturally. Fields of grapes are organized rank-and-file, an infantry of vines standing at attention in tidy rows and columns. Identical wooden frames steer the vines’ winding growth off its natural path into a tight, upright posture. In hilltop tasting rooms, leather-tanned locals with bleach-blonde hair pour reds and whites as much into glasses as into categories. Fruit-forward or dry, bold or buttery.
If you’re like me, you can’t tell the difference after your first sip. Tastes like… wine. Then someone explains what you’re tasting – what you should be tasting. “The Syrah,” your guide explains, “is dry and heavy, with a cherry finish.” You drink again.
Of course – I get it now. With a frame to rest on, the flavor of the second sip snaps around the words into its own orderly, defined posture. Dry. Cherry. The words give more than a description; knowing the words makes the wine taste different.
We often think of language as a tool for describing our experiences and communicating with one another. Research suggests, however, that language can reach beyond description to influence what we see, think and remember. Our thoughts and experiences grow around the structure that language provides.
To begin, let’s talk about color. We use language to group the thousands of colors our eyes can perceive into manageable categories, and different cultures carve up this spectrum differently. For example, Greek speakers have separate words for light blue (“ghalazio”) and dark blue (“ble”), while English speakers describe this range of colors with the single word, “blue.”
Researchers found that Greek speakers are less likely to differentiate between “ghalazio” and “ble” after living in an English-speaking environment. The constant exposure to the English language – and it’s different color framework – influenced native Greek speakers to see the two colors as part of the same category. Over time, “ghalazio” and “ble” folded together and became blue. Electrophysiological data and a count of eye blinks showed that the change wasn’t just semantics; being immersed in a new language caused the bodies and minds of Greek speakers to react differently. Even the way we see color isn’t always black and white.
The words we know can also influence basic thinking tasks. The Pirahã, a small Amazonian community, have words for concepts like “about one,” “some” or “many” – but not for numbers like seventeen, eighteen or nineteen. The lack of number words has a profound effect on how the Pirahã think. Researchers showed Pirahã participants a number of spools of thread, and asked the participants to give back an equal number of balloons. If the participants didn’t have a visual reference to match the balloons up against one-by-one, they couldn’t complete the task.
The Pirahã don’t have the words they need to conceptualize numbers. The Pirahã can’t count.
Like the Pirahã, you can easily picture “about one,” “a few” or “many” without counting, but you need number words to visualize a specific amount. Try to picture fourteen balloons in your mind without counting them. It’s impossible – the thought can’t exist without the language to support it.
Language also shapes how we interpret and remember events. Imagine a friend bumps into a table in your home, shattering a glass across the floor. How would you describe what happened?
The answer depends on the language you speak. Some languages – like English – would say that “he broke the glass,” while others – like Spanish – tend to say that “the glass broke” without identifying cause or intent. Researchers have found that this small change in phrasing across languages can lead people to remember identical events differently. Speakers of languages like English are more likely to remember an ambiguous event as intentional, while speakers of languages like Spanish are more likely to remember the event as an accident.
Is your friend to blame for the shattered glass, or was it just a random mishap? Depends who you ask.
There are plenty of other examples of how language influences perception, ranging from the passage of time to our sense of direction to our description of our own personalities. These examples reveal that our words aren’t just a tool for describing or communicating – the language we speak changes us. We trust what our two eyes see, what the voice in our head tells us, what our memories say really happened, yet our perceptions come from both objective truth and the personal lens we each peer through.
What you see, think and remember is only one version of reality – your version. Like grape vines, our reality winds and grows around the frame it rests on.