But does language shape meaning, or does meaning shape language? Maybe in a way it's both. If you ask someone "would you like a kitten?" and when they say yes, you punch them in the face, the next time you ask them if they want a kitten they'll say no. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but then again, if a rose is called "horseshit," you might not want to smell it in the first place.
What about language shaping thought? Certainly language determines how well you can communicate a thought verbally, but does language allow you to have ideas otherwise un-haveable? By that same line of thought, people who own different words live in different conceptual worlds. This compound notion is known as Whorfianism.
The Japanese have a word for something that you agree with publicly, but privately don't support. They also have a word for something you don't support openly, and agree with privately. These words might not be necessary to know when talking to a Japanese speaker, but simply knowing that these words exist in their language might shift the way you communicate with them. It is a concrete example of their culture and how it differs from others. It suggests that they live in a different conceptual world, and that because they have these words, they have a different gamut of thought.
However, I'm not completely sold on this idea. It seems obvious that language shapes thought or vice versa, and that cultures have different vocabularies from each other because they represent different lifestyles. A study of the Pirahã language, however, brings up an interesting idea. This language is spoken by a small Amazonian community, and it has no number words. Instead they have words that mean "around one," "some," and "many." This was a pretty tough concept for me to wrap my head around. I can't imagine what it would be like to not be able to count; it seems like such a basic task. The researchers described it as trying to imagine 17 balloons in your head without counting. It's impossible. It's easy to imagine one or two or three or four, but larger numbers require counting. The Pirahã culture was essentially running on educated estimations whenever they counted.
Over the next week I'm going to keep researching these topics and looking into how language shapes, limits, and expands thought.