The words that shape your world

Your compassImagine your language didn’t have a word for left and right, or the concepts in front of and behind. How would you orient yourself? How would your relationship to the world be different?

More than a thought experiment, there is indeed a language that has no egocentric coordinates. That difference in language has a profound effect on the lives of the people who speak it, and it made me think about the words I use every day.

The Guugu Yimithirr

The Guugu Yimithirr, whose language bears the same name, are an aboriginal tribe in northeastern Australia. If you’ve heard about them, it’s because they’ve given us the word kangaroo (gangurru). I learned about them in Through the Language Glass, a richly detailed treatment of the differences between languages and how they do and don’t shape our thinking.

Instead of using egocentric coordinates like left and right, they use geographic coordinates like east and west. You wouldn’t say “look out for that shark behind you” but rather “look out for that shark north of you.” This is more than just a substitution of words. What's behind you is always behind you, but north has to be computed as your position changes.

“In order to speak Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life…you need to have a compass in your mind all the time…and the Guugu Yimithirr have exactly this kind of an infallible compass.”

They weren’t born this way. It’s just that their language shaped how they think.

The difference between boys and girls

You don’t have to study obscure languages to find examples in which the words we use change how we relate to the world. You can find them in French, Spanish, German, and Italian, among others.

While English speakers almost exclusively refer to inanimate objects with the gender-neutral “it,” many languages force speakers to assign a gender to such objects and talk about them using the same grammatical forms for men and women.

Several studies cited in Through the Language Glass showed that people thought of objects differently based on their gender. For example, the German bridge (die Brücke) is feminine but the Spanish bridge (el puente) is masculine. When researchers asked subjects to describe attributes of a bridge, the German speakers used words like beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender. The Spanish speakers chose big, dangerous, strong, and sturdy.

The language of choice

Though the Guugu Yimithirr could understand egocentric coordinates, the words they used every day changed how they related to the world. Though German and Spanish speakers could understand that inanimate objects don’t have an innate gender (or at least that different people could see that gender differently), the words they use every day change their view of those objects.

What about you? What about the words you choose every day? The language you use to describe yourself and the people around you, how you frame your thoughts throughout the day, shapes your experience in a fundamental way.

The lesson I learned was clear: Change your attitude. Change your language. Change your world.