Katrin Lunde

Language Structure Programmes the Brain


Thursday 7 November, 10.30-11.00, E0105

The idea that language conditions the way people think has been widely discussed, by philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists – especially in the first half of the last century. However, as long as nobody made use of the experimental technique to investigate this hypothesis, the discussions could easily be dismissed as yielding little more than idle speculations. 

The first scholar to investigate experimentally the interdependencies between perception, language, thought, and behaviour was Frode J. Strømnes. On the basis of observations and experiments conducted by himself and his collaborators, dating back to the late 1960s, and of empirical material from other sources, Strømnes formulated a new theory of symbol systems, among which language is one example. This theory implies and hence explains that interdependencies exist between perception, language structure, thought, and behaviour, and further that language structure directly conditions perception and thought, and thus, indirectly behaviour. In a series of experiments, focusing on Finnish and Swedish, Strømnes has shown that the essence of this theory, and its implications, are valid. He has demonstrated experimentally the existence of a space for mental models, and that different languages can have dissimilar mental model spaces and dissimilar spatial rules. He also found clear correlations between differences in the structure of Finnish and Swedish on the one hand, and differences in the perception, thought, and behaviour of speakers of Finnish and Swedish on the other.

On the basis of this conception, extended with the insight from George Lakoff/Mark Johnson (1980), that the human conceptual system is structured around a small set of fundamental concepts that emerge directly out of physical experience, one can predict and explain findings such as those revealed in experiments and investigations conducted from the 1980s onwards, which for various fields of language demonstrate that differences in language structure correlate with crosslinguistic differences in cognition (cf. Guiora 1983, Levinson 1996, McGlone/Harding 1998, Boroditsky 2000 and 2001, Boroditsky/Ramscar 2002, Thibodeau/Boroditsky 2011, Günther et al. 2012).

Absolutely fundamental to cognition is the way the individual learns how to see, how to experience, how to structure. A human being learns that through acquisition of the mother tongue. The grammatical structure and the metaphorical structuring of a language reflect the properties of the space for mental models in the language community. As far as that goes, the different languages – with their different structures – represent different neural programmes.


Boroditsky, Lera (2000), “Metaphoric Structuring: Understanding Time Through  Spatial Metaphors”, in: Cognition, 75, 1-28. Boroditsky, Lera (2001), “Does Language Shape Thought? Mandarin and English  Speakers’ Conceptions of Time”, in: Cognitive Psychology, 43, 1-22. Boroditsky, Lera (2011), “How Language Shapes Thought. The Languages We Speak  Affect Our Perceptions of the World”, in Scientific American, February 2011, 43- 45. Boroditsky, Lera/Ramscar, Michael (2002), “The Roles of Body and Mind in Abstract  Thought”, in: Psychological Research, 13 (2), 185-189. Gentner, Dedre/Imai, Mutsumi/Boroditsky, Lera (2002), “As Time Goes by: Evidence  for two Systems in Processing Space→Time Metaphors”, in: Language and Cognitive  Processes, 17 (5), 537-565.  Günther, Franziska/Hermann Müller/Hans-Jörg Schmid/Thomas Geyer (2012), “Do  German and English speakers conceptualize spatial scenes differently? The case  of vorne rechts (auf dem Tisch) vs. on the front right hand side (on the  table)”, lecture given at The 4th UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference, 10-12th  July, London. Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1973), “Einleitung zum Kawi-Werk. Über die Verschiedenheit  des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluβ auf die geistige Entwicklung des  Menschengeschlechts”, in: Wilhelm von Humboldt, Schriften zur Sprache,  herausgegeben von Michael Bühler, Philipp Reclam Jun., Stuttgart, 20-207. Lakoff, George (2008), “The Neural Theory of Metaphor”, in: Gibbs, Raymond W. jr (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University  Press, Cambridge etc. Lakoff, George/Johnson, Mark (1980), Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago  Press, Chicago. Levinson, Stephen C. (1996), “Frames of Reference and Molyneux’ Question:  Crosslinguistic Evidence”, in: Bloom et al. (ed.), Language and Space, The MIT  Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts/London; 109-169. McGlone, M.S./Harding, J.L. (1998), “Back (or Forward?) to Future. The Role of  Perspective in Temporal Language Comprehension”, in: Journal of Experimental  Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 24, 1211-1223. Sapir, Edward (1973), “The Status of Linguistics as a Science”, in: Mandelbaum,  David G.(ed.), Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and  Personality, University of California Press, Berkeley/L.A./London, 160-166. Strømnes, Frode Jens (2006), The Fall of the Word and the Rise of the Mental Model.  A Reinterpretation of the Recent Research on the Use of Language and Spatial Cognition, Peter Lang Verlag, F.a.M./Berlin/Bern/Brussel/N.Y./Oxford/Wien. Thibodeau, Paul H./ Boroditsky, Lera (2011), “Metaphors We Think With: The Role of  Metaphor in Reasoning”, PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0016782, 1-11. Werner, Oswald (1994), “Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis”, in: Asher et al. (ed.), The  Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, vol. 7, Pergamon Press,  Oxford/N.Y./Seoul/Tokyo; 3656-3662. Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1941), “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to  Language”, in: Spier et al. (ed.), Language, Culture, and Personality. Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir, Sapir Memorial Publication Fund, Menasha, Wisconsin,  75-93.