Are we imprisoned by our language? GEORGINA GUY joins the linguistic relativity debate.

Imagine you were born in a prison. You’d be unable to escape the restrictions of your cell, unable to experience things outside of your confinement, unable to even think about concepts beyond the surrounding four walls. What if I told you that the language you speak is that prison, restraining you from having experiences outside of the limits of your language? This is, after all, the strongest version of Edward Sapir’s and Benjamin Whorf’s renowned hypothesis, that language completely determines how we think about the world.

A less dramatic, and frankly more credible, version of their hypothesis is that language influences how we think about the world around us: it’s known as linguistic relativity (Hussein, 2012, p. 642). In other words, the language we speak can strongly influence how we live our lives! Just imagine that your language didn’t have words for numbers, just like the Pirahã tribe in Brazil (Everett, 2013, p. 260). Try to get your head around not being able to count how many pets you have! Or picture yourself alone in the middle of a forest at night, without your mobile phone, but knowing exactly where due north is, just like speakers of the Australian aboriginal tongue Guugu Yimithirr can do, because their language uses compass points instead of left or right (Nomikou, 2016).

On the one hand, linguistic relativity seems a very plausible theory, when we take into consideration the differences between languages. As I’m sure you’re aware, all languages have different structures, including different words, grammatical constructions, and pronunciations (Hussein, 2012, p. 642). But does this cause people to categorise the world around them, and therefore think about things, differently?

One study you may not know about that supports the existence of linguistic relativity involves the (I originally assumed universal!) difference between a mug and a cup. To me at least, a mug is made of enamel, has a handle and can hold hot drinks, whilst a cup is plastic and handleless. The Spanish language though doesn’t have this difference, so its speakers call both objects “una taza”. In an interesting experiment by Boutonnet, Dering, Viñas-Guasch and Thierry (2013), 13 native Spanish speakers and 14 native English speakers had their brain activity monitored whilst detecting differences between different objects. What they found supports the existence of linguistic relativity, as none of the Spanish speakers detected a difference between a mug and a cup, because their language doesn’t have this distinction. Who would have thought that language can influence how we categorise and think about even simple objects we use every day?

Other linguists disagree with the concept of linguistic relativity, and claim language doesn’t affect how we perceive things, as it’s merely a way to express what you’re thinking (Bloom & Keil, 2001, pp. 363-364). So, the differences between languages can be compared to a game of Chinese whispers: parts of the original message may be altered when passed between speakers, or when translated from one language to another. I wonder whether emojis could get the same message across, or is language really necessary?

Something else to consider is whether cultures influence language more than languages influence culture. Thinking back to the Pirahã language, which I mentioned before, does this not include numbers simply because their culture doesn’t need them (McWhorter, 2014, p. 16)?

Another argument is that we can still grasp concepts that we don’t have words for in our language. Gaining weight after binge-eating whilst emotional is known as “kummerspeck” in German, and whilst the English language doesn’t have a word for that, we can still understand the idea (and may even know how it feels!). Similarly, we have a film titled ‘The Day after Tomorrow’, a concept which translates to the one word “zeg” in Georgian. My German friend can still understand the concept of a fortnight, even though her language doesn’t have a specific word for it, as they instead use “vierzehn Tage”, or 14 days. If linguistic relativity is correct, then I should be better than her at tracking the timespan of a fortnight because English has a word for it. In my own experience, this isn’t the case; we both perceive the concept of a fortnight in the same way, and the different languages we speak don’t affect this.

So then, is language a prison-cell, restricting what we can think about? Is Wittgenstein (1921, p. 74) right to say that “[t]he limits of my language mean the limits of my world”? Or is language instead a thing of beauty, shaped by cultures and life experiences, which allows us to think about infinite concepts from all around the world?

GEORGINA GUY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Bloom, P. & Keil, F. C. (2001). Thinking through language. Mind & Language, 16(4), 351-367.

Boutonnet, B., Dering, B., Viñas-Guasch, N., & Thierry, G. (2013). Seeing objects through the language glass. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(10), 1702–1710.

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

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

McWhorter, J. H. (2014). The language hoax: Why the world looks the same in any language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Nomikou, P. (2016, April 1). Language and thought [Video file].

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

 

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3 thoughts on “Are we imprisoned by our language? GEORGINA GUY joins the linguistic relativity debate.

  1. Luke Stokoe says:

    Hi Georgina. This is an excellently written blog post and clearly explains linguistic relativity and determinism while still being a good read! I would agree with the point you make about being able to understand concepts which our language does not hold a specific lexeme for. In my experience, Italians, for example, have the word “campanalismo” which has no English counterpart. It is derived from “campanile” which means bell tower, with the word “campanalismo” meaning a specific sense of local pride regarding to the area surrounding the closest bell tower to one’s home. This is due to these buildings being highly culturally significant in Italy, with one present in nearly every village or town however we would still understand what the concept of local pride is. Also, due to the towers cultural significance, this word could also be evidence for your point which relates to how culture may influence language.
    According to Graddol (2007, p.1), English is a global language and this is “one of the most remarkable phenomena of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.” I would be intrigued to learn whether English grew globally due to our culture and understanding that our language allows. Do you think this could have been related to linguistic relativity, with other languages being in some way less pre-disposed to encompass the modern world, thus swinging the global tide to English?

    Graddol, D. (2007). Redesigning English. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

  2. Eleanor Heaton says:

    Hi Georgina. I really enjoyed reading this! I liked how you used the prison cell analogy in the opening paragraph. It was very thought provoking and it helped me visualise language use as a confined and restricted concept, which is something that I have never really imagined in that way. You use a very good balance of arguments for and against language relativity and you referenced well. I would probably support the argument you mention that language is constructed through different cultures and lifestyles, which enables us to express limitless concepts from around the world, rather than the language relativity argument. This is because I agree with the point you make that not every culture needs certain words to communicate a certain topic and we can understand particular concepts without referring to it in the same way. Its like when you mention the German word for gaining weight after binge-eating whilst emotional (“kummerspeck”). We still understand the concept, but we just simply do not have a word to express this. It does not mean that our language is restrictive. It just means that our culture and Germany’s culture express it differently.
    Finally, I’d like to know what your view was and whether you support language relativity. Which side are you more persuaded by?

  3. Briony Greaves says:

    Hi Georgina!
    I really liked your analogy of relating language to a prison. It prompted me to wonder whether bilingual speakers, or individuals who can speak more than one language, do not feel confined to one specific language. There may be a specific word or term from another language that best describes a scenario that English does not define as effectively. However, the problem speakers face with this is that not everyone they are communicating with will know this second language. In my opinion, I do not believe I am constricted in my language use and English is my only language. The idea that our language has numbers, and some do not, and some languages have more words for snow, and others do not, confirms that each language and culture is extremely unique.
    You proposed the question of whether culture influences language or the other way around. In my opinion, culture influences language because I think that our world changes and language changes with it. For example, technology allowed for individuals to use slang which they then started using in everyday language.
    Your blog presented a balance argument of the different concepts within the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It is claimed that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis explains how “our thoughts are shaped by our native language, and that speakers of different languages therefore think about the world in different ways” (Cibelli, Xu, Austerweil, Griffiths & Regier, 2016, p. 1). This statement links more to linguistic relativity. I do think this is the stronger version compared to linguistic determinism. However, I do believe that some concepts can be seen the same no matter what language you speak, like the example of fortnight you gave. Previously, I asked my bilingual friend if she thought in Spanish (her first language) or English. Her response was that she did not really notice, but she predominantly thought in Spanish. However, she tried to think in English when she was teaching English students and in conversation with English people because that was the language she was speaking in at that time. I believe this response links more to linguistic determinism. Although I am not sure this is accurate so would love to know what you think. You also state that linguistic relativity is the stronger version but later slightly disagree with it, so wanted to know what your stance is on the two?
    In addition, you questioned whether emojis can replace language. However, emojis can show gestures, for example, thumbs up, which have different meanings in other cultures. Amey (2015) wrote an article for the Daily Mail online which confirms that a thumbs up in Greece is taken offensively. Therefore, attempting to communicate with speakers of a different language and finding a ‘lingua franca’ is necessary to avoid causing offense. I also do not think emoji’s can express everything that language can and may even cause further restriction like your prison analogy stated.
    Thank you for writing an engaging blog that prompted my comment. I would love to hear any further views you have on this topic.

    Reference list:
    Amey, K. (2015, March 18). The most offensive gestures around the world revealed in infography. Mail Online. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3000521/Handy-infographic-explains-hand-gestures-world.html

    Cibelli, E., Xu, Y., Austerweil, J., Griffiths, T., & Regier, T. (2016). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and probabilistic inference: Evidence from the domain of color. Plos One, 11(7), 1-28. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158725

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