The Voice of Reason (or What’s in a name? online) is a fascinating article by David Robson in New Scientist on one of my favourite topics – how language affects the way we think. The “linguistic relativity” theory of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf – one of my favourite hypotheses – is blamed for the “fall from grace” of the idea that language shapes thought. The work of Eleanor Rosch – one of my favourite psychologists – on categorisation appeared to contradict the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, by showing that categorisation rests more on physiological characteristics of humans – how we see, what size things are, whether or not something is edible – than on the names we have for things.

Noam Chomsky’s quest for a universal grammar made the notion that language and thought were essentially common to all humanity more popular than linguistic relativity. However, psychologists have started to note that having names for categories helps infants put things into those categories. Children’s spatial reasoning also seems to be improved when you remind them of spatial vocabulary (Dedre Gentner, Northwestern University, Evanston , Illinois: Cognitive Psychology, vol 50, p 315). People instinctively teach children by reminding them of what category words like “top”, “middle” and “bottom” mean. An experiment with “aliens” indicated that when people were given names for types of aliens they categorised them more quickly and accurately than when they weren’t given the names (Gary Lupyan, University of Wisconsin, Madison: Psychological Science vol 18, p 1077).

Although the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that language dictates and constrains thought – appears unlikely to be true, on the grounds that you could never have a new idea or create a new category – the “weak” version – that having those words available will encourage people to think in those terms seems very plausible. An experiment has now indicated that Russian speakers – who have two different words for shades of blue – are faster at sorting out those shades than English speakers (Lera Boroditsky, Stanford University, California Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 7780).

Labelling objects helps the memory take “shortcuts” so that minor details do not have to be remembered (Lupyan Journal of Experimental Psychology: General vol 137, p 348). Political activists in many areas have argued that language use encourages stereotyping – hence the attempts to break down stereotypes by changing names for groups. However, when applied to something like sets of documents, not bothering to see them all as individuals can be a useful shortcut. If you want to build a user-friendly taxonomy, using the categories people know and like will make your system quicker and easier to use. Of course they could learn other ways of categorising – they could break the stereotypes – if they spent a bit of time and effort thinking it all through – but in many contexts the job of the taxonomist is to give people what they want quickly and efficiently, not to enter into debates about whether or not they conceptualise things in the most politically appropriate way.

Language has also been shown to affect perception. If you use upwards-moving words (climb, rise, etc.) while showing people patterns of randomly moving dots, they are more likely to correctly detect the predominant direction of movement if the words match the direction (Psychological Science, vol 18 p 1007). Conversely, showing people upwardly-moving dots while saying “fall” confused them. The words seem to “prime” the visual system of the brain.

Another effect is that it is easier to see something if you say the name – so it really does help when you are looking for something to mutter the name of the object to help you find it. According to Andy Clark, a philosopher at the University of Edinburgh, language was the original form of “augmented reality” – “an overlay that changes how we think, reason and see”.