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Psychol Sci. 2013 May;24(5):613-21. doi: 10.1177/0956797612457374. Epub 2013 Mar 28.

The thickness of musical pitch: psychophysical evidence for linguistic relativity.

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Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.


Do people who speak different languages think differently, even when they are not using language? To find out, we used nonlinguistic psychophysical tasks to compare mental representations of musical pitch in native speakers of Dutch and Farsi. Dutch speakers describe pitches as high (hoog) or low (laag), whereas Farsi speakers describe pitches as thin (nazok) or thick (koloft). Differences in language were reflected in differences in performance on two pitch-reproduction tasks, even though the tasks used simple, nonlinguistic stimuli and responses. To test whether experience using language influences mental representations of pitch, we trained native Dutch speakers to describe pitch in terms of thickness, as Farsi speakers do. After the training, Dutch speakers' performance on a nonlinguistic psychophysical task resembled the performance of native Farsi speakers. People who use different linguistic space-pitch metaphors also think about pitch differently. Language can play a causal role in shaping nonlinguistic representations of musical pitch.


Whorfian hypothesis; cross-cultural differences; language; metaphor; music; musical pitch; psychophysics; space

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