Language Shaping Thought: Can This Impact Eye-Witness Testimonies?

7 min readApr 19, 2019

Note: this was originally a thread on twitter, now expanded into an article with added details and references.

“Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.” -Martin Heidegger

There’s a popular TED Talk from cognitive scientist Dr. Lera Boroditsky who talks about how “language shapes the way we think”.

In it, she describes instances of various languages impacting our behavior and view of the world — necessitated or structured by the language itself.

The question of how language and thought are related and whether the former affects the latter is a question familiar to those in the field in the form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (though admittedly a misnomer, the two never authored works together nor called it that). Linguists Edward Sapir and later Benjamin Lee Whorf formulated and idea called linguistic relativity, in a nutshell the idea that the language we use affects cognition. Here is a diagram I made to summarize the different levels of this idea:

“We dissect nature along the lines laid down by our native languages.”

— Benjamin Lee Whorf

In my Language and Mind class, we looked at some of her studies, which pose interesting dilemmas if corroborated, though there’s a specific point Dr. Boroditsky touches on that’s been festering at the back of my mind lately. One of her studies with Dr. Caitlin M. Fausey in 2010, “Subtle linguistic cues influence perceived blame and financial liability”, looks at eye-witness memory.

At the crux of it is comparing Spanish and English, which have vastly different syntax. Most new language learners follow a method of translating sentences in your head piecewise, word for word, then rearranging, then lo and…


language, anime, short musings