I’ve written about Sapir-Whorf (e.g., here and here) and about the Pirahã (e.g., here and here, and good lord, has it really been five years?), and there’s nothing particularly new in Joshua Hartshorne’s “Does Language Shape What We Think?” in Scientific American, but it’s a nice short roundup of recent developments, and this is a thought-provoking paragraph:
This suggests a different way of thinking about the influence of language on thought: words are very handy mnemonics. We may not be able to remember what seventeen spools looks like, but we can remember the word seventeen. In his landmark The Language of Thought, philosopher Jerry Fodor argued that many words work like acronyms. French students use the acronym ban[g]s to remember which adjectives go before nouns (“Beauty, Age, Number, Goodneess [sic], and Size”). Similarly, sometimes its [sic] easier to remember a word (calculus, Estonia) than what the word stands for. We use the word, knowing that should it becomes [sic] necessary, we can search through our minds — or an encyclopedia — and pull up the relevant information (how to calculate an integral; Estonia’s population, capital and location on a map). Numbers, it seems, work the same way.
As a side note, Scientific American could use some proofreading. (Thanks, Sarah!)