On some level we already know that language shapes the way we think. We're automatically more afraid to fight a guy named Jack Savage than somebody named Peewee Nipplepuss, even if we've never seen either of them before. It's totally illogical, but you probably run into an example of that every day, and don't notice it.
While we tend to think words are just sounds we make to express ideas, science is finding that language is more like a fun house mirror, warping what we see in mind-blowing ways. For instance ...
5Speaking English Makes Us More Likely to Blame People
Let's say your roommate Steve is jumping on your bed. Maybe you have a Tempur-Pedic mattress and he wants to see if he can make a glass of wine fall over, like in the commercials. The frame breaks and the bed collapses. Your other roommate yells from the hall, "What the hell happened?"
How will you answer? Will you say, "That dipshit Steve broke the bed?" That's true, but he wasn't trying to break it. Or would you just say, "The bed was broken?"
Keep in mind, Steve pulls this shit all the time.
The answer largely depends on what language you speak. And the language won't just determine how you phrase it, but who you actually blame for the accident. An English speaker is more likely to name Steve as the responsible party -- even if he wasn't jumping on the bed like a jackass but just sat on it. A speaker in Japan or Spain would be more likely to just say, "It broke."
Stanford scientists did experiments on this, by having speakers of various languages watch videos featuring, in various situations, people breaking eggs or popping balloons, sometimes on purpose, sometimes on accident. The subjects didn't know why they were watching.
"Maybe it's a kid-friendly version of Jackass?"
Later, the scientists quizzed the subjects on the people in the videos. In videos where the guy intentionally broke the egg, all of the subjects, regardless of language, were equally good at remembering details of the guy. After all, he's the one who broke the egg. The video was about him, the egg breaker.
Will nothing stop his madness?
But when asked about the people who accidentally broke something, the Spanish and Japanese subjects -- the groups more likely to use "the bed broke" earlier -- couldn't remember them. Since it was an accident, the guy wasn't important. The egg broke.
But us English speakers? We could remember him just fine. To us, the distinction between intentional and accidental was much less important. Somebody had to be blamed.
You'd think that this has less to do with the language and more to do with the culture -- that maybe they're just less prone to throw around blame in Japan. So they did another experiment, this time with just the English speakers. They had them watch the infamous Janet Jackson boob flash during the Super Bowl a few years ago.
"Seriously? This pissed off millions of people?"
The group was then handed a report on the incident and told to come up with a punishment. Half of the group got a report with a very subtle difference in wording: at the end instead of reading "the costume ripped," it read Justin Timberlake "ripped the costume." The people who got the second report levied fines 50 percent higher than the others. Even though they had all watched the same video about the same incident. Just changing the phrasing to imply blame changed the way they thought about it.
Science is just beginning to grasp how this changes a culture, but you can have fun thinking about it. For instance, during this election season, think about how much of the debate centered around figuring out who is to blame for each problem. Whose fault is it that the health care system is screwed up? Washington? The insurance companies? The lawyers? We must know! It has to be somebody, dammit. It can't just be, you know, some kind of complex, chaotic system subject to a billion variables no one understands. To phrase something that way, even if it's an accident or a natural disaster, feels weird to us. The story needs a villain.