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