ARI SHAPIRO, host:
This next story, from our science correspondent Robert Krulwich, starts with a language exercise.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Okay, now here's what we're going to do. We're going to ask a German speaker?
Unidentified Woman (German Speaker): Guten tag.
KRULWICH: ?and a Spanish speaker?
Unidentified Man (Spanish Speaker): (Foreign language spoken)
KRULWICH: ?and we'll show each of you some simple nouns, words on a screen like table, chair, maybe a bridge. If you speak German, what is the word for bridge?
Unidentified Woman: Die brucke.
KRULWICH: Die brucke, which is what kind of a noun?
Unidentified Woman: A feminine noun.
KRULWICH: Okay. So we all know that in many languages, nouns can be either masculine, feminine. In German, again, it's?
Unidentified Woman: Die brucke.
KRULWICH: And in Spanish, the word for bridge is?
Unidentified Man: El Puente.
KRULWICH: Which is which kind, a masculine or a feminine?
Unidentified Man: Masculine, el is always masculine.
KRULWICH: Okay. So the Spanish speakers call bridges by a masculine noun, with German speakers it is?
Unidentified Woman: Feminine noun.
KRULWICH: Okay, now comes the fun part.
At her lab, assistant psychology professor Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University asked a bunch of Spanish speakers and then German speakers to look at simple words on a screen - including, as it happens, the word bridge.
Ms. LERA BORODITSKY (Assistant Psychology Professor, Stanford University): And for each object, we just asked them, give us three adjectives that describe that object.
KRULWICH: Just look at the picture and say whatever comes into your head.
Ms. BORODITSKY: What we find is that Spanish and German speakers come up with a very different set of descriptions for things like a bridge.
KRULWICH: For German speakers, where the bridge is feminine, the adjectives that popped up most for them were?
Ms. BORODITSKY: Beautiful, extended, elegant.
KRULWICH: And also fragile and pretty. But for Spanish speakers, when they looked at a bridge, they chose?
Ms. BORODITSKY: Long, strong, thrilling?
KRULWICH: Towering, sturdy, dangerous. So when your word for bridge is a masculine noun?
Ms. BORODITSKY: People start to focus on the more masculine parts.
KRULWICH: What Lera Boroditsky found is that the grammar that you learned from your parents, whether you know it or not, affects your sensual experience of the world. If you're German, you can look at the same bridge as a Spaniard and because of a grammatical difference between masculine and feminine nouns?
Ms. BORODITSKY: You find, wow, their underlying understandings of these things are totally different.
KRULWICH: And it's not just bridges. Germans and Spaniards have different genders for tables and for chairs, for all kinds of nouns.
Ms. BORODITSKY: It's a whole lot of stuff.
KRULWICH: It is. So when you inherit a language?
Ms. BORODITSKY: You're inheriting much more than just how to speak. You're learning a whole cultural system.
KRULWICH: Here's another example. Lera asked some German speakers to look at a toaster.
Unidentified Woman: Der toaster.
KRULWICH: That's the German word?
Unidentified Woman: Masculine.
Unidentified Woman: Der.
KRULWICH: So everybody turned on their computers and alongside the picture of the toaster were some suggested names, including the name Patricia.
Ms. BORODITSKY: And we had one German speaker come out in the middle of the experiment and she said, I just wanted to tell you, I think there's something wrong with your computer. I think it's broken. And we said, well, why do you say that? And she said, well, it just told me the toaster's name is Patricia, and I know that can't be true because toasters are male.
KRULWICH: So it's somehow deeply ingrained in her that toasters have this quality.
Ms. BORODITSKY: Yes, and that is how it feels intuitively. You know, as a Russian speaker - I grew up in Russia, and then my parents and I moved to America and I had to, of course, learn English.
KRULWICH: And as Lera became more and more of an English speaker?
Ms. BORODITSKY: I felt like I was thinking in an entirely different way.
KRULWICH: And Lera couldn't help but wonder: Is this just the rules of grammar, masculine and feminine nouns that are creating these differences, or could it be something else?
Ms. BORODITSKY: You know, something in the olive oil that Spanish speakers eat or you know, it could be anything. There are so many differences between German speakers and Spanish speakers. So one way to establish whether it's really language that plays this role is to bring people into the lab and teach them a new language.
KRULWICH: So she invented one.
Ms. BORODITSKY: We have a language called Gumbuzi.
KRULWICH: Gumbuzi? What does Gumbuzi sound like?
Ms. BORODITSKY: I don't know, you tell me.
(Soundbite of Gumbuzi)
KRULWICH: Useful phrases in Gumbuzi, part 23 - crossing the bridge.
(Soundbite of Gumbuzi)
KRULWICH: Excuse me, I left my umbrella on your bridge. Now you try.
Ms. BORODITSKY: I see you are very familiar with Gumbuzi, nearly fluent.
KRULWICH: To be fair, I just invented that version of Gumbuzi, how could I not, but back to Lera's version. What she did was, she got a bunch of American students who speak only English - so for them, tables and chairs have no gender; they'd had no experience with masculine or feminine nouns - and for a day, she taught these kids a language that assigned gender arbitrarily to different nouns. So she told them half the nouns will begin with oo - oosabigtruck(ph), big truck; oosachesthair(ph), chest hair; oosaman(ph), a man.
Ms. BORODITSKY: The other half of the things are supative(ph).
KRULWICH: Meaning they begin with su. Supink(ph).
Ms. BORODITSKY: Pink.
Ms. BORODITSKY: Soft.
Ms. BORODITSKY: Woman.
KRULWICH: And she assigned oos and sus to tables and chairs, arbitrarily. And after one day of learning this new language?
Ms. BORODITSKY: What we find is that just learning this kind of grammatical distinction in the lab is enough to induce some of the very same affects.
KRULWICH: So if the word bridge, for example, in Gumbuzi, is a male word, oobridge(ph), will they begin assigning it dangerous, long, towering, strong and sturdy?
Ms. BORODITSKY: That's exactly what we see.
KRULWICH: And that just comes from the inner logic of the grammar of the language?
Ms. BORODITSKY: And in - you have no idea it's happening to you. You just think you're learning a way of talking but really, you're learning a whole way of seeing the world.
KRULWICH: But you know, I keep listening to you and I'm thinking about Shakespeare.
Ms. BORODITSKY: What do you mean?
KRULWICH: Well, if we went back to the fundamental question here, remember it was Shakespeare who said that what we call a thing does not matter, like with the rose thing. A rose?
Ms. BORODITSKY: That's right. Shakespeare had a hypothesis that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
KRULWICH: ?would smell as sweet, um-hum.
Ms. BORODITSKY: And actually, I've had students in a class of mine at MIT test out Shakespeare's hypothesis.
KRULWICH: How - what did they do?
Ms. BORODITSKY: Make two paper bags and you put a rose in each.
KRULWICH: And then I guess, with a magic marker, what you do is you mark one of the bags rose, and the other bag, though it also has roses inside, you label mowed grass, or something like that, and then you invite people to sniff each bag. They can't look; they just sniff.
Ms. BORODITSKY: And then they have to rate how pleasant the smell is, how sweet the smell is and so on.
KRULWICH: And it turns out that a rose by another name, mowed grass, does not smell as sweet. People overwhelmingly said the bag marked rose smelled to them sweeter. So Shakespeare was wrong.
Ms. BORODITSKY: You can turn Shakespeare into an experiment.
KRULWICH: And these experiments suggest not only that the language you speak seems to change your experience of the world, it may even change, I don't know, the way you think.
Ms. BORODITSKY: Yeah, the way you think, the way you see the world, the way you live your life, all of those things.
KRULWICH: Lera Boroditsky teaches psychology at Stanford University in California.
I'm Robert Krulwich, NPR News, in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.