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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Linguistic Determinism

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So lets 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? Its an enticing idea, but we cant determine

that somethings true just because it looks promising. Im 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 dont, were going to have a pretty

different way of talking about our favorite bands. But its only in the past couple

of hundred years that people have started to seriously discuss the way ones language

affects ones 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 ones 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 bycivilizedEuropean 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 were not laying all the blame for this

at the feet of ideas linking language to worldview, they did make a contribution.

But for now, lets 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 isnt just influenced by our language - its 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 lets 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

that language.

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 thats really interesting stuff, and its caused a lot of discussion over the

decades since then. By now, a greater body of research has shown that Whorfs

assumptions how Hopi works were mostly mistaken, but lets pretend for a minute that theyre correct for

Lets 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!

Theyd 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 lets 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 theyll 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-calledfocal

coloursthan 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 whats the idea? Is linguistic determinism on the right track, or should we put it to rest?

Well, on the one hand, theres 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 wont 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, theres a way to keep some of the intuitive logic of linguistic determinism

without it controlling your every move. Theres 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 aboutlevel upagain for a minute. You know about the idea of levelling

up because you know enough about video games, right? If youd never heard of video games,

you wouldnt really have that concept in your head. But you do! So, when you feel

youve 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 theyll know what you mean!

So its 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 theyd have some influence over our thoughts. Carrying it to the extremes

of that Sapir-Whorf style linguistic determinism is too strong, and its dangerously easy

to take that idea too far.

But the idea that theres some influence of language on your worldview, and vice versa,

is a good one. Relatively speaking.

So, weve 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. Its directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost,

and its 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. Were 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.

Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own

personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And well see you next Wednesday. Hágoónee’!

The Description of Linguistic Determinism