Last updated on November 28th, 2023.
You may have heard that Eskimos have 50 words for snow or that bilingual speakers perceive the world differently than monolingual speakers. It is undeniable that language is a fundamental part of being human. So much so that we do not even think about what makes it possible in the first place or just how much language shapes our reality.
Our color perception and how we perceive the world, for example, is influenced by the language (or languages) that we speak. Features that are unique to humans explain why language shapes the way we think.
Where Does Language Come From?
Language owes its existence to the unique path of human evolution, which sets us apart from other species in the animal kingdom.
While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly one origin of language, the latest archeological evidence suggests that language began to appear around 50,000 years ago. This coincides with the development of art and material culture, particularly in the form of artifacts, such as tools, jewelry, pottery, and weapons.
It is possible that language emerged as long as 150,000 years ago when anatomically modern humans became a significant presence. The anatomically modern human has a long neck and a short mouth, which makes vocalization possible. In contrast, our closest animal relatives, primates, have protruding mouths and shorter necks, which make language and speech formation difficult.
Whether you go with archeological evidence or evolution, it is evident that the origin and development of language overlaps with human evolution and history.
How Many Different Languages Are There?
According to Babbel, there are about 7,111 languages spoken to this day. The 7k does not include dialects or compute programming languages. This number tends to fluctuate over the years since some languages die out and others develop or are created. In fact, UNESCO maintains a list of “endangered languages,” which includes Romani, Yiddish, and Quechua.
Languages are grouped together into a “linguistic family” if they share a common origin. That is, we can trace them back to one common language that was splintered over time. The main language families, with the largest percentages of worldwide speakers, are:
The Indo-European family is made of languages that are spoken in Europe, the Americas, and parts of Asia. Day Translations counts at least 446 spoken Indo-European languages, encompassing 64 countries.
Afro-Asiatic languages include Arabic, Berber, and Egyptian which boasts millions of speakers worldwide.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is forecast that Chinese, Spanish, and English will be the most spoken languages and the world, with Spanish becoming the most spoken language in the US. And let’s not forget about fictional languages: Dothraki, Klingon, Elvish…if you want to count them as spoken languages. While nonverbal, we can count sign language as a “spoken” language too.
How does our language shape the way we think: A Summary
What Is The Science Behind Language?
Another way to ask this question would be, “how does language work?” The science behind language consists of three main elements:
- Brain activity
The human vocal tract is a complex instrument that produces a wide range of sounds, a hum, a shriek, and what we would recognize as words. It spans the area between the nose, nasal cavity, and the vocal chords – as shown here. The vocal tract is made up of folds that produce sound when they come together and vibrate when air passes through them as you breathe. The tongue also plays an essential role in producing distinct sounds.
The human vocal tract is the instrument and the brain is the processing center. The brain is in charge of processing, speech production, and comprehension. Learning about the brain plasticity theory would give you an explanation of how well moldable our brain is. One region of the brain, known as “Broca’s area,’ is where language development occurs and it “registers” the words that you hear.
Any string of sounds coming from your mouth would seem like babble to another person unless they recognize it as a sentence in a language that you both speak. The language you speak depends on your culture and where you were raised. The sounds that we produce can only mean and communicate anything through a language developed in a social context.
There would be no such thing as language if humans were not social creatures.
Do Our Words Influence The Way We Think?
There are few examples that demonstrate that words or languages in general can influence the way we think. Whether language affects the way we experience and think about the world has been debated for decades. However, it is always important to keep our brain healthy.
According to the linguistic relativity hypothesis, our language does shape the way we think and experience the world. One interesting implication of this is that someone who speaks multiple languages experiences the world around them in more than one way.
This hypothesis was founded by a Yale scholar-student team, Edward Sapir, a linguist, and graduate student. Benjamin Whorf. Documenting and recording the cultures and languages of Native American tribes made them aware of the close relationship between language and culture.
The study of the relationship between language and culture led Sapir and Whorf to the hypothesis that the structure and words of the language you speak influences how you feel about the world and behave. The fact multilingual speakers think differently in their native language seems to support this.
A good example of how language shapes the way we think is color perception. According to one study, the kinds and range of colors you see depends on the language you speak. For example, Russian speakers can spot and identify different shades of blue more quickly than English or German speakers.
Is There A Good Book To Help Understand This More?
Whether you’re a language lover or interested in the psychology and science of language, there are a few books that will give you a deeper dive into the subject. Some of the best books on language include:
- On Language By Noam Chomsky. This is a classic in the field of linguistics, penned by one of the founders of cognitive science and a renowned, antiwar activist. The book consists of two essays, Language and Responsibility and Reflections on Language, which explore the broad implications of studying language.
- The Stuff Thought by Steven Pinker. This book explores the relationship between language and human nature, specifically what the structure of language reveals about human nature.
- Don’t Believe A Word by David Shariatmadari. Linguist David Shariatmadari delves into the science of language to bust the myths that we have about language in general. You can pick this one up as a non-expert’s introduction to linguistics.
- Animal Languages by Eva Meijer. Human language has been the focus of this list (and this article), but it is worth exploring the idea that non-human animals do have language. This is just what Eva Meijer does in this book. In some ways, understanding how other animals develop and use language cam help us better understand how language shapes reality.
This is far from a complete list of books that can help you understand how language shapes the way we think. But it is a good place to start.
Language is an achievement that seems to make humans stand out from the animal kingdom. It is so integral to human life that it is not a surprise that it shapes the way we think and experience the world. While it is hard to pin down its origins, language has been around for as long as the anatomically modern human has appeared on the scene and is a window into the human psyche.