Keys and Bridges: Can Language Shape Thought?

Golden Gate Bridge

My favorite bridge, but this California girl may be biased

die Brücke. /di ˈbʀʏ:kə/ n. Language: German. Meaning: Bridge—a “soft,” “slender” and “peaceful” work of towering steel, according to those eccentric Deutsch.

Does the language you speak affect the way you think?

This question has been debated and beaten to a bloody pulp by every linguist worth his salt. Its origins lie in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, an idea of linguistic relativity that states that your inherent grammar shapes how you see the world.

Edward Sapir and his pupil, Benjamin Lee Whorf, sent shockwaves across the academic community when they suggested humans may not be as free-willed as previously thought—that in fact, something as decidedly unsexy as grammar could be dictating people’s thoughts and actions.

At first the idea took hold; to make a long story short, Whorf pointed out that Eskimo languages have so many variations for the word “snow,” so they must view icy precipitation differently than English speakers. People scratched their heads and thought, perhaps this guy has a point.

The idea is that each language includes or excludes certain things in its grammar. This leads speakers to be naturally more focused on certain things over others. Thus, observations are acutely tied to language.

Language and Thought quote by Edward Sapir---A Thing For Wor(l)ds

But then most linguists came to their senses, realized ONE CASE STUDY does not warrant a hypothesis about all the world’s languages and speakers, and that, actually, Whorf’s procedure in measuring all this was faulty anyway. The theory was completely written off as silly at best, insulting and a-crime-to-the-field-of-linguistics at worst.

But in the bipolar field of language, the story doesn’t end there.

In recent years, linguistic relativity is making a comeback. There have been some fascinating experiments to show that maybe, just maybe, language can affect the way you see the world.

One that I find particularly convincing, as a student of both Spanish and German, was Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky’s focus on how grammatical gender could shape cognition.

Can Language Shape Thought: Linguistic Relativity in Gender


Many languages encode for gender, by classifying their nouns into one of several categories. The gender encoding is usually arbitrary—there’s no reason a table is more manly or womanly than a houseplant—though most often, “woman,” “girl” etc. will be grammatically feminine, and “man,” “boy” etc. will be grammatically masculine. (There are some exceptions to this, though!)

The Process

In order to check if languages with grammatical gender shape thought, Boroditsky rounded up a group of native German speakers and another group of native Spanish speakers. German has three gender agreements: masculine, feminine, and neuter–der, die, and das—and Spanish has two: masculine and feminine, el and la. These speakers were asked to describe the word key in English, which is grammatically masculine in German but feminine in Spanish. Then they were asked again, this time with bridge, which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish.

You Try!*

How would you describe the words “key” and “bridge”?

I am a native English speaker, a fluent Spanish speaker, and a painfully slow learner of German, and the first word that pops into my head for “key” would be rusty. But then again, I’ve been using a house key that was first cut when Bush Sr. was president.

The Results

The native German speakers overwhelmingly described a key with such words as “jagged, rough, hard, heavy, metal, serrated, useful.”

Spanish speakers said a key was “golden, intricate, little, shiny, tiny, lovely.”

(Experiment aside, would you ever describe a key as lovely? Were these participants high?)

Next up was the word for bridge, which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. The results were consistent! German speakers described a bridge (in English) with adjectives like  “beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, slender,” all words that usually personify females.

Spanish speakers came up with “big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering,” much more stereotypically male attributes.

Mark Twain on German gender--A Thing For Wor(l)ds

German gender can be quite arbitrary

  • From “YOU TRY” above: If English is your mother tongue, then this attempt to try to involve you through a blog post was a hoax. English doesn’t encode for gender, so your answers are invalid, but thanks for playing!


Does one experiment across three languages mean that language shapes thought? Absolutely not. But think about the implications these findings could have if they do hold water.

The issue of gender in language has far-reaching effects that could be the next wave in not just linguistics, but feminism, psychology, communication. . . . English has already taken steps to replace terms like “fireman” and “policeman” with “fire fighter” and “police officer.” Is a little girl in Ecuador or Spain unconsciously deterred from realizing her dreams because there is no feminine form for the term “artist” or “dentist?”

If this study shows that the grammar of a language—in this case, gender—affects people’s perception of an object, imagine how it could affect the perception of people, culture, and relationships.

The verdict is still out on whether or not language can shape how you see the world. 

But what I try to convey through A Thing For Wor(l)ds—whether approved by Sapir and Whorf or not—is that language can, and most certainly does, shape the way you travel and soak up new experiences and cultures. 

In the coming weeks and months I will be highlighting language learners, sharing language learning tips for expats and travelers, and uncovering jaw-dropping facts about world languages that you would never conceive of as a native English speaker. All related to travel, of course, because why leave out half the fun? To keep up with it all, sign up for posts, and make sure to check out A Thing For Wor(l)ds on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest

Are you a believer in linguistic relativism, or does it seem like a hoax? And how has language shaped your travels? Let me know in the comments below!

Information for this post was taken from:
Spivey, Michael J., Ken McRae, Marc F. Joanisse. The Cambridge Handbook of Psycholinguistics. “How the Languages We Speak Shape the Way We Think. ” Lera Boroditsky, 615-631. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
More interesting reads: “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics,” by Lera Boroditsky, 2003.
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  • Gaëlle Van Binst

    Making a reflexion, I think what shapes more your thoughts it is the way your parents raised you up and the things you have been experiencing through the years.

  • Gaëlle Van Binst

    The relativity theory is the guilty of the travel improvements nowedays. If Einstein hadn’t discovered it we will be probably walking or riding horses.

  • Gaëlle Van Binst

    When I think in the word key, I think about a tool to open a door or even about a clue to pull together the pieces of a mystery. May be language can help us to express our thoughts, but I don’t think they are shape fully by it, because there are thoughts that don’t make part of language, as geometric shapes, mathematic, art, etc.
    According to relativity theory, time is relative to speed of motion, that is,if we move faster, time will pass slower for us, as well as gravity, gravity affects on time, for example if you live in the basement time will pass slightly slower for you than if you live in the attic, because gravity makes you move slower, so if you are higher the gravity pressure will be stronger and then you will move slower than if you have your feet on earth and therefore the gravity pressure will be slower.

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  • Mikaela Swedlund

    I love this!!! I wrote my senior thesis on this subject for university.

    • ahhh a fellow linguist!! I actually wrote an honor’s paper on this very topic, which is why I had done all the research and could easily transfer it to the blog! ha. I find it way too insanely interesting.

      • Mikaela Swedlund

        I know, right? My thesis debated the question, “Which comes first?”. Does thought create language, or does language create thought? I read and wrote myself in circles, but I never had so much fun writing a paper :)

  • I minored in Spanish linguistics in college, so I’m familiar with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but I hadn’t heard much about recent findings. Really interesting stuff!

    I’m slowly learning bits of German on Duolingo, and remembering genders seems to be the hardest part, especially since I have preconceived notions of gender from speaking Spanish. At least French, Italian, and Portuguese often use the same gender for the same words (even if the translation sounds nothing alike) as Spanish.

    I’m looking forward to your upcoming posts! Linguistics is fascinating!

    • Gender’s definitely the hardest part of German, and you can’t just forget about it since it determines which of the four cases to use!! Basically why I ended up returning to Spanish and not pursuing German….hahah. But Duolingo is awesome, maybe I’ll start it back up again!

  • I’d love to hear about that same survey but conducted between Castilian Spaniards and Galician-speaking Spaniards, as “bridge” is “el puente” (masculine) in castellano but “a ponte” (feminine) in Galician.

    I’m personally not a fan of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as I think it should actually be the other way around; language doesn’t influence the culture and the ways of thinking as much as the culture and thought patterns determine the shape of the language itself.

    • I definitely agree that the culture has a strong influence on the language and thought processes as well. After reading a bunch of experiments, though, it’s hard for me to toss out the idea that language doesn’t have at least a small effect on cognition!
      Interesting about the difference in genders between Spanish and Galician. I didn’t know they varied in such a significant way!

  • Whoa – great points made! I never put this much thought into the words, but I also think it helps learning so much as you can really associate your thoughts with them instead of mere memorization. Love this post!

    • Exactly—I used this trick for memorization. Spanish gender is easy because it generally follows the endings, but German gender is the worst thing ever, and so I would always have to think of a bridge wearing heels or a dog with a mustache. Weird things happened in German class.

  • Pedro1312

    i always have wondered myself why English language has no gender as it does Castilian.

    if i pronounce “mesa” (table) which is femenine, unconsciously and naturally i think of a female/femenine entity or i develop such a feeling, usually nice or sweet, towards the table, whereas a male/masculine and thick feeling arises if i think for example of “martillo” (hammer) which is masculine.

    i am interested in knowing how does it feel when you think of “the table” or “the hammer” with no gender, do you only think of the object? nothing beyond that?

    • Interesting, Pedro! Yes, when I think of “table” I don’t associate any gender to it whatsoever. Never even thought about it before I started learning Spanish!

  • Anne

    ‘Vino’ or ‘vin’ just sounds so much better than wine. It totally affects the way I think about what I drink. ;)
    Also, I have just one word for ‘snow’ since I try and stay away from it. Bring on the sunshine.
    Great post!

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