A language without numbers? How do mothers know how many children they have? HELENA WHITEHOUSE explores linguistic relativity

Unimaginable isn’t it, mothers not knowing how many children they have? But if a language doesn’t have numbers how could one know? Ideas such as these led the American linguists Whorf and Sapir to believe that language is the “straightjacket” that keeps us from truly experiencing the world (Everett, 2013, p.255). They claimed that the way we perceive the world is based largely upon the language that we use, and the limitations it has on us. But if this is the case, does that mean the language we speak affects the way we interpret the world?

The work of Sapir and his student Whorf eventually became known as the ‘Sapir –Whorf’ hypothesis. A ‘strong’ version of this – ‘linguistic determinism’- is the idea that the way a person thinks is totally determined by the language they speak (Everett, 2013, p.255). The theory argues that if a language is missing words to describe a concept, these concepts cannot be understood by speakers. This is kind of like the idea of a horse wearing blinkers, in that their view has been restricted so they cannot see anything past them. However, most researchers disregard this extreme form.

A weaker version of this view of the relationship between language and thought is called ‘linguistic relativity’. This is the idea that both language and thought are important in perceiving the world, and that they lean on each other for support (Humboldt, 1988, p.54). Within this theory, is the idea that cultures influence languages differently (Hussein, 2012, p.642). Whorf (1956) argued that Inuit cultures have over 50 words for snow. This is because they need to know the exact type of snow that surrounds them, to make sure it is safe to hunt or sleigh. In English, there are far fewer words for snow as it mostly does not affect our daily lives. As a Brummy living in the curry capital of the UK, for me it would be more beneficial to have over 50 words to describe a Birmingham balti rather than snow!

Linguistic relativity argues that the Inuits are perceiving the snow in a different way, as they would be absorbing more details to choose the best word to describe it (Whorf, 1956, p.210). An example supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be seen in Everett’s (2013) study. In his study of the Amazonian tribe, the Pirahã, he found there are no words for numbers in their language. Everett believes this is the case because the Pirahã have no need for numbers, as they do not live in a modern society where there is a money-based economy (2013, p.260).

Everett tried teaching Pirahã adults to count, over many months. However, at the end of these months, not one Pirahã member was able to count to ten or add one plus one (Everett, 2005, p.626). This seemed to be evidence that the people of the Pirahã tribe cannot grasp the concept of numeracy. Their lack of words for numbers is restricting how they think. Their blinkers are well and truly on.

Nevertheless, there are examples which challenge the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Everett (2013) found that there is also a lack of colour words in the Pirahã language. This lack of colour words is due to the fact that the Pirahã people do not need them. They know every piece of flora and fauna and can recognise each species of animal. They do not need these descriptive words as every object has its own name (Everett, 2013, p.256). This, however does not mean they cannot describe colours. Everett (2013) points out that any member of the Pirahã tribe can describe any colour to you, however, in maybe a phrase rather than a single word. They may, for instance, use “xahoasai” which means “it is unripe” to describe the colour ‘green’ (Everett, 2013, p.256). This shows that people can think beyond their language to create new terms. To do this there must be room for independent thought that is not being restricted by a speaker’s language.

Personally, I am undecided as to whether language restrains us. I can confidently say I cannot think of more than five different words for snow in English, so I feel I am limited there. But if I do not know I am limited, am I truly limited? Perhaps the famous quote “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein, 1922, p.45), is accurate and there is a whole lot of life we are missing as we do not have the capacity to express it. Or perhaps we are just making it all up as we go along.

HELENA WHITEHOUSE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Everett, D. (2005). Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã another look at the design features of human language. Current Anthropology46(4), 621-646.

Everett, D. (2013). Language: The cultural tool. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd.

Humboldt, W. (1988). On language: The diversity of human language-structure and its influence on the mental development of mankind. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.​

Hussein, B. A. S. (2012). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis today. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2(3), 642-646.

Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought and reality: selected writings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company Inc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “A language without numbers? How do mothers know how many children they have? HELENA WHITEHOUSE explores linguistic relativity

  1. Luke E says:

    Hi Helena, I really enjoyed reading this summary of linguistic relativity and determinism. It seems a difficult topic to engage with as it requires an individual to think about the world outside of the realms of their language.
    I disagree with the totality of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I looked at the German language in comparison to English and found words that exist within German but not English. For example Torschlusspanik. The word itself relates to the feeling that time is running out to achieve life goals. However my lack of knowledge about this terms existence, prior to discovering it, doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced this nor that I wouldn’t be able to articulate within the bounds of my own language. Whilst a singular word makes the concept easier to express it doesn’t appear to have influence on how it is felt by individuals. I think this is reflected within your discussion of Everett’s (2013) discovery of the Pirahã. Whilst the tribes people may not be able to express colours as a speaker of English (or other languages) would they can still use their language to describe colours using the words within their vocabulary.
    I would agree that there is some degree to which language shapes the way we perceive the world however I don’t think it as strong as stated within the determinism theory. I agree with Everett (2005, pg. 226) where he suggest that “[t]he constraint(s) must be cultural, it seems to me, because, while there does not seem to be any linguistic or cognitive commonality between the items there is a cultural value that they share”. This would imply that culture itself has an impact on the language we use as a pose to language having an effect on the culture. Would you agree with is idea?

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