So let’s talk about perception. The way I see the world is going to be different from
how you see it, for all kinds of reasons: my culture, my experiences, my personality
and perspective. But what about my language? Do the words I speak influence the way that
I think and interact with the world? It’s an enticing idea, but we can’t determine
that something’s true just because it looks promising. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this
is the Ling Space.
So the idea that the language you speak shapes the way that you see the world is really intuitive.
After all, if you know the difference between a guitar and a bass
but I don’t, we’re going to have a pretty
different way of talking about our favorite bands. But it’s only in the past couple
of hundred years that people have started to seriously discuss the way one’s language
affects one’s worldview.
Now, if you know some 19th century European history, this makes a lot of sense. That period
saw a craze of nationalism just sweeping across the continent, with a lot of borders being
drawn and redrawn. What exactly made one community different from another was an intense topic
of debate. People thought that maybe there was something innate to national characters.
And one way that this might manifest itself is in the languages people spoke.
But early linguists like Wilhelm von Humboldt wanted to ground these philosophical notions
in quantifiable scientific ways. Now, this is an important step in getting to see just
how impactful one’s language really is. The idea that your language shapes how you
think was really influential for a while, but unfortunately, it had some disastrous
consequences, and not only in Europe.
In fact, some of the most destructive linguistic policies in America arose from the idea that
indigenous language communities should be replaced by “civilized” European languages.
And those policies were really ruinous - according to the MIT Indigenous Language Initiative,
of the roughly 300 Native American languages that once existed, only 165 remain. And of those,
80% have under 1,000 speakers left.
I mean, there are 3 times more Hungarian speakers in the US than speakers of the most populous
Native American language, Navajo. And while we’re not laying all the blame for this
at the feet of ideas linking language to worldview, they did make a contribution.
But for now, let’s put aside how people have used and abused these concepts, and just
take a closer look at the salient scientific points behind them. The strongest version
of this is usually called linguistic determinism, because it says that the way
that we think isn’t just influenced by our language - it’s totally, 100% determined by it.
who pioneered the topic, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Now, this idea raises some
interesting questions: Like, if words shape how you see the world, can there be anything
resembling accurate translation between languages? Or, if you speak more than one language, is
your worldview significantly different between them?
But let’s leave those for now, and start with some really famous research
done in the 1930s by Whorf. He studied grammatical structures from Native American languages,
and compared them with English and other European languages. One of the languages he looked
at was Hopi, spoken in northern Arizona, and specifically, how people talk about time in
He surveyed Hopi vocabulary and didn't find any nouns that had to do with counting time
passing. He also analyzed Hopi verbs as not having tense: so instead of having past, present and
future, they had different verb endings that showed how confident about their statement a speaker was.
So that’s really interesting stuff, and it’s caused a lot of discussion over the
decades since then. By now, a greater body of research has shown that Whorf’s
assumptions how Hopi works were mostly mistaken, but let’s pretend for a minute that they’re correct for
Let’s say that Hopi doesn't encode time. Then linguistic determinism would say that monolingual
speakers of the language would have a significantly different concept of time from English speakers!
They’d actually have to think about and experience the world differently, because
of the language in their minds. The discussion around this gets pretty heavy,
though, so let’s take a look at something more concrete. Let's look at, say, colour.
Logically, the way your eyeballs and brain bits see colour should be basically the same
whether you live in Toronto or Taipei, or whether you speak Mandarin or Mongolian. It's
just biology! Right? Well, to a proponent of linguistic determinism, not right. The
words you have for colour should totally influence which colours you're able to perceive.
There's actually been a lot of research on this. It turns out that not every language
has the same number of colour terms. Some languages just have words for black and white!
If they have more than two, so like three, the third term that they’ll add in
is for red. Then comes a distinction between cool colours like blue and warm colours like yellow.
Which colours your language has term for is directly related to how many terms
your language has, with the same hues always taking priority.
So, we can use the way that different languages chop up the world of colour to see how
language influences perception. If you ask someone from a language that only breaks the spectrum
up into a few pieces pieces to identify a colour that they don't have a word for, what will they do? Well,
linguist Eleanor Rosch wondered about this too, back in the 1970s.
She ran an experiment asking people to match and organize colours, but she ran it on speakers
of Dugum Dani, a language that only has two real words for colours, for light and dark hues. So
what happened? People had consistently easier times telling apart so-called “focal
colours” than vaguer ones - so ideal typical blue, rather than wishy-washy bluishness.
And then, when she gave taught them some words to describe some of the colours in her experiment,
they still did better with the ones that were focal colours. This strongly suggests
that colour perception is universal, and not influenced by language; for colour at least,
our senses tell us more than our words do.
So what’s the idea? Is linguistic determinism on the right track, or should we put it to rest?
Well, on the one hand, there’s plenty of evidence against it, like the colour naming
experiments. Or, look at how often it feels like putting our thoughts into words
is just too tricky, and our language just won’t come out right. If language framed your thoughts
rather than the other way around, this wouldn't happen nearly as much. Plus, people come
up with new words all the time, from subspace to level up. If there wasn't some word-less
part to the thinking process, all this would be pretty unlikely.
Luckily, there’s a way to keep some of the intuitive logic of linguistic determinism
without it controlling your every move. There’s a lighter version to the theory, which is
usually known as Linguistic Relativity. This says that the words you say,
the languages you speak, they might not completely rule your brain but they do come into play
when you think about the world.
Like, think about “level up” again for a minute. You know about the idea of levelling
up because you know enough about video games, right? If you’d never heard of video games,
you wouldn’t really have that concept in your head. But you do! So, when you feel
you’ve gotten better at something, like expressing your emotions honestly, you
think, “Hey, I leveled up!”
Knowing certain words can change the way you see the world, not to mention how you
deal with the people in it. You share a common ground with the people that you
talk with - you all have a bunch of assumptions and suppositions about the world. So you can
tell your friends that you totally levelled up at playing the drums from all the practicing you've been doing,
and they’ll know what you mean!
So it’s probably true that the words and rules we have tumbling around inside our heads
helps us frame the world. We use words a lot, both out loud and inside our heads, and so it
makes sense that they’d have some influence over our thoughts. Carrying it to the extremes
of that Sapir-Whorf style linguistic determinism is too strong, and it’s dangerously easy
to take that idea too far.
But the idea that there’s some influence of language on your worldview, and vice versa,
is a good one. Relatively speaking.
So, we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space for this week. If you levelled up your linguistic
information, you learned that views linking language and thought have been very influential,
if not always in good ways; that one of these, linguistic determinism, says that your language
determines your worldview; that the strong version of linguistic determinism has been refuted
by later research; and that a weaker version, linguistic relativity, better matches what
we know about language use.
The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost,
and it’s written by both of us. Our production assistant is Georges Coulombe, our music and
sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments
below, or you can bring the discussion back over to our website, where we have some extra
material on this topic.
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personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And we’ll see you next Wednesday. Hágoónee’!