Computing Magazine

How Language Shapes Reality: Exploring Guugu Yimithirr

Posted on the 31 January 2013 by Expectlabs @ExpectLabs


Do we see the world differently based on the languages we speak? Linguistic relativity, a concept spearheaded by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s, claims that differences in language lead to differences in thought. However, this principle is not as straightforward as it seems. Are we unable to think about things we don’t have the words for, or do we lack the words for things because we don’t think about them? 

The Guugu Yimithirr language of Australia has fascinated linguists for many reasons. For most languages, our bodies are the focal point for communicating directions. However, speakers of this remote Aboriginal language refer to the position of objects relative to the cardinal points, and not in relation to themselves. Instrumental English words such as “left,” “right,” “in front,” and “behind,” (called egocentric coordinates, because they are dependent on the location of individuals), do not exist in Guugu Yimithirr. If a speaker was conveying an object’s position, they would describe it as being “on the western edge of the floor,” or if they wanted you to bend over, they would tell you to “go south.” These spatial directions would seem quite odd to most of the world, but for Guugu Yimithirr speakers, this is how they conceptualize their world.

What are the effects of living in a culture that is so conscious of space? Native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr grow up with a heightened awareness of their physical environments. Guugu Yimithirr speakers are more skilled at locating and describing objects in an open terrain, while English speakers are better at describing the position of objects relative to others. In addition to highly developed spatial orientation skills, Guugu Yimithirr speakers are forced to have a broader perspective of the world; a world in which they are not the nucleus. For example, when a non-geographic language speaker (e.g., English speakers) point to their chest, we automatically think they are pointing to themselves. When a Guugu Yimithirr speaker performs this same action, they are always pointing to a direction behind them, as if their existence isn’t the most important thing. These seemingly minute differences in vocabulary impact our perception in ways we are just beginning to understand.


Carroll, John B. (ed) 1956. Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press.

Deutscher, Guy. August 26, 2010. “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • Flower Language Of Love

    Flower Language Love

    There is not more beautiful feeling than love. Almost everyone who has loved truly and right from the heart will have to admit that. Read more

    By  Hiddenobjectgames2011
  • How Teens Hack Language

    Teens Hack Language

    Recent research from Pew’s Internet American Life Project says that 58% of teenage Facebook users dupe their authority figures through language laced with... Read more

    By  Expectlabs
  • How Language Affects Our Wealth

    Language Affects Wealth

    Could the way a person’s language marks the future affect their likelihood of saving for that same future? While this might sound crazy, new research shows a... Read more

    By  Expectlabs
  • Make Muffins In Animal Shapes

    Make Muffins Animal Shapes

    You can add a new level of fun to your baking with this Nordic Ware Zoo Animal Muffin Pan. Breakfast muffins can be a wild experience when the muffins are in th... Read more

    By  Petslady
  • Reality TV in Space: How Much Drama Could Mars Handle?

    Reality Space: Much Drama Could Mars Handle?

    Image from NASA’s successful landing of the U.S. Mars Rover, Curiosity, has reignited the dream to put men on the distant red planet, and... Read more

    By  Candornews
  • Exploring Austria’s Premier Ski Resort

    Exploring Austria’s Premier Resort

    Lech am Arlberg in the far West of the Austrian Alps is the jewel in the crown of the region’s pistes. A long time favorite with the Dutch royalty and equally... Read more

    By  Simplypiste
  • This Odd New Reality

    This Reality

    I wander around in this city and wonder whether when I'll stop feeling like I'm on a vacation. The sounds, smells and views pervade my mind and is all I can see... Read more

    By  Halinak