Written by Reuben Westmaas
A very eloquent man once said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but a very bratty cartoon character once replied, “Not if they were called stench blossoms.” We hate to give Bart Simpson the win over William Shakespeare when it comes to language, but he might have a point. The language you use has a real effect on how you perceive the world. At least, that’s according to the (somewhat controversial) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
The Word on Your Shoulders
We’ve talked about this subject a bit in the past — you may remember that language changes your perception of time, or that the language you are speaking as a bilingual person might shape your personality. But the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis takes this relationship to the extreme. It was first formulated in 1929 by linguist Edward Sapir and built upon by his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, and it’s gone through many revisions since then. But in its first, most extreme version, Sapir wrote, “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.” Your language doesn’t have a word for “facepalm”? You might not even recognize the gesture.
We’ll be honest, that sounds like a pretty bold argument — but not necessarily a good one. If two different languages really represent such a wide gulf (a gulf not only of communication but also of reality itself), then how could you ever translate anything from one language to another? Sure, you’re likely to lose some nuance in any translation, but it’s not as if there’s an uncrossable boundary between “potato” and “pomme de terre” just because one literally means “apple of the earth.” Still, linguists aren’t ready to toss out the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis entirely.
Fortunately, there’s a pared-down version of the hypothesis that’s a little more palatable. Often called “linguistic relativity,” this version doesn’t suggest that an individual’s reality is fully shaped by their language as much as it is gently molded. It’s based on two premises: First, that different languages (especially of different language families) are different in significant ways; and second, that the structure and vocabulary of a language has a significant effect on the way a person perceives and conceives of the world. As it turns out, there are some good reasons to think this version of the hypothesis holds some water.
Shades of Gray … or Blue
In a study published in September 2018, psychology professors Martin Maier and Rasha Abdel Rahman directly investigated how different languages with different kinds of vocabularies affected the perceptions of the people who spoke them. They recruited about 100 participants — 28 Greek speakers, 29 German speakers, and 43 Russian speakers — and presented each of them with a series of symbols in two tones of color. The first was blue and light blue; the second was green and light green. The Greek language distinguishes blue from light blue as different categories of colors (the way we might distinguish light red as the distinct color pink), while German and Russian has no such distinction. Unsurprisingly, the Greek speakers identified the first two sets of symbols as being different categorically, while the other two groups lumped them together as the same kind. With the green and light green symbols, all three groups put them in the same category.
Perhaps even more compellingly, the Australian language of Kuuk Thaayorre has a fascinating feature not shared by any other known language: it has no words for “right” or “left,” and instead relies entirely on the cardinal directions. A Kuuk Thaayorre speaker might make reference to your north arm, instead of your right arm — and if you turn around, that arm would become the south arm instead. As you can imagine, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers are much better at orienting themselves in space than speakers of other languages, even in unfamiliar locations.
In another study, speakers of several different languages were asked to place images in chronological order — for example, a series of images showing a crocodile growing up, or a banana being eaten. English speakers would place the earlier images on the left and the later images on the right, while Hebrew speakers put the earlier images on the right and the later images on the left, in accordance with the direction each script is read. Speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, however, placed the earlier images toward the east and the later images toward the west, regardless of which direction they were facing. It’s compelling evidence that the language you speak drastically alters the way you think about the world.
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