Words Matter: The Link Between Language and the Brain


“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” – George Orwell

Last week, the Associated Press (AP) announced that it would stop using the terms “illegal immigrant” and “illegal” in its Stylebook to describe people who come to this country without going through the legal immigration process. Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained the decision.associated-press

“The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally,”

This change has implications, not just for the AP, but for news outlets all over the country. The AP Stylebook is considered the go-to source for most journalists on questions of terminology. Regardless of what position you take on immigration reform, the obvious question for most readers of this blog is, “What does this have to do with science?”

It turns out, quite a lot. Words are not simply neutral descriptors of our environment or verbal tools used to communicate wants and needs. The link between our thoughts and the words we choose to express those thoughts is fundamental, and it doesn’t just go one way. We’ve known for quite some time that the brain influences the way we express ourselves, but new research is uncovering that the way we express ourselves influences our brains as well. The language we use may influence how we make connections in our brain, how we form memories and even how we perceive the world around us.

Edward Sapir & Benjamin Lee Whorf

The idea that languages can affect the brain and therefore thought isn’t new.  It was first proposed by linguist Edward Sapir and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf over 60 years ago. Whorf was studying the Hopi language, when he noticed that it didn’t seem to contain any units of time. He proposed that this omission caused native Hopi speakers to actually perceive time in a non-linear way, very different from English speakers. As Sapir put it, “Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose.” Their idea came to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

At the time, their hypothesis provoked a great deal of discussion by others in the field, but by the 1960s it had gone out of vogue. It was criticized by a number of prominent linguists, including Noam Chomsky, on the grounds of the poor methodology used by Sapir and Whorf, and on the question of causality. Was the language affecting the brain or was the brain affecting the language? It was a classic chicken-egg problem.

thCA9JA5UFBack then, there was no way to find an answer, but using modern tools like positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers are trying to unravel which came first. This has given rise to entirely new fields of research, such as neuroanthropology and cultural neuroscience.

Around the year 2000, a group of Italian researchers used PET scans to compare the brains of native Italian and native English speakers. Italian is a phonetic language. English most definitely is not. The same sound in English may have multiple spellings and the same letter combinations can be pronounced in a dizzying variety of ways. The researchers showed each group a series of actual words and nonsense words. When trying to identify the nonsense words, the Italian speakers showed greater activity in the area of the brain that deals with word sounds. The English speakers showed greater activity in the area that deals with word retrieval. They seemed to be trying to recognize words as a whole.

Their work was followed up in 2006 by researchers who used fMRI to compare brain activity in native Chinese speakers versus native English speakers. Each group was asked to solve simple arithmetic problems. Although both groups solved the problems with equal proficiency, the way that they did so differed. The English speakers used a region of the brain that processes language, suggesting that they dealt with them as word problems. The Chinese speakers used a region that processes visual information. Essentially they were dealing with them as pictures.

black-and-white-scrambled-words1If this is all correct, and the language we use does influence how we perceive and process the world around us, then the use of terms like “illegal immigrant” and “illegal” to refer to our fellow human beings raises some very disturbing questions. Does it dehumanize how we view them? Regardless of which immigration reforms are passed, do these terms hardwire us to forever perceive them as other? Does biased language lead inevitably to biased reasoning? Clearly, this all bares additional research, but until then we should be careful of the language we use. Words matter.


One thought on “Words Matter: The Link Between Language and the Brain

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