How Does Language Affect Your View of the World?

What is the relationship between language and thought?

Something that is quite vital to this topic is the linguistic relativity hypothesis. It originated with Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1940), which was quite long ago, so I had to question its relevance in today’s scientific world. Do experts and specialists even agree with it, still? Let’s examine what he proposed:

1) Language and its formations dictate thoughts and their formations. 2) If a specific experience cannot be articulated or represented by a word or phrase in your language it is therefore unthinkable for you. 3) Cultures that linguistically differ are disinclined to share the same worldviews. 4) Lastly, this hypothesis, also known as linguistic determinism, states that language and its formations limit and mold how we categorize, cognize, and remember things. [1] Furthermore, this premise makes me think that language limits and molds my experience of the external world. And others have made the same interpretation.

1950s researchers wondered if the quantity of colors in a language would affect people’s episodic memory of those colors. Then, Eleanor Rosch in the 1970s studied the Dani people of Papua, New Guinea—who only use two words (bright and dark) for discriminating colors—and compared them to English-speaking folks (who use multiple terms for discriminating colors). Rosch found no perceptual differences among the two groups, despite their language differences. In fact, Dani speakers and English speakers were equally able to recognize the minute variances among the colors. Specific terms that were unmatched with specific experiences did not inhibit the participants’ thoughts and understandings about those experiences. Shocking! Right? Maybe not. [4]

Berlin and Kay’s 1969 research discovered a spectrum of two to eleven basic color terms existing cross-culturally. Thinking back on how Whorf was accused of being arbitrary, this study was used to say that the language-color relationship has a predictable grading scale, thereby buttressing the opinion that there is one kind of external reality and/or that human language does not interpose between the language-user and external reality as much as we want to suspect. [4]

It was in 1979 when Lucy and Schweder’s work was said to have found a methodological flaw in Rosch’s work and that her chips conditioned the study participants to cater to a bias for a priori colors. Rosch’s results were un-replicated by Lucy and Schweder. It was concluded that “language appears to be a probable vehicle for human color memory, and the views developed by Whorf are not jeopardized by the findings of any color research to date.” [4]

In 1984, Kay and Kempton would conduct experiments establishing further corroboration. They provided chips with three different green-blue hues to one group of English speakers, who lexically discriminate between green and blue, and chips to one group of Tarahumara speakers, who have just one term for the two colors. Their English-speaking participants and Tarahumara-speaking participants performed with a 50% discrepancy. [4]

It seems over-simplistic to assert that science has either unequivocally proven or disproven the premise that language structures determine thought structures and thereby one’s experience of the world. The idea that linguistic determinism has been disgraced among important, influential professionals appears to be only an allegation. However, a radical, rigid form of linguistic determinism has been at least rejected. People have said that we are not certain about what Whorf believed in exactly and that he never directly scrutinized the effects of language on thought. That may be irrelevant as the aforementioned experiments suggest that thought and language employ mutual influence. [2]

It is quite outlandish that anyone would try to deny that language and thought have connection, of course. Consider that individualist languages make people more aware of their personal needs and desires whereas collectivist languages make people more aware of social obligations. Anyone who is bilingual or multilingual can report that their language of choice influences how they think about themselves and others. [1] I think we can say that cultures differ in their worldviews because of language incongruities, and what I instantiated helps to show that. But apparently the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been misused to exaggerate those incongruities to the extent of overly inspiring the public with the possibility that people such as the Herero of Southwest Africa can’t distinguish between the color of a leaf and the color of the daytime sky merely because they speak the same word for green and blue. Eskimos’ panoply of words for snow, a panoply much larger than yours and mine, does not equip them with a mental apparatus to perceive snow better than you and I. The language of the Hopi people that is not laden with past tense words similar to the English language does not make them less aware of time than English-speakers. [3]

But perhaps language offers implications about the nature and features of whatever we are talking about. Language always offers clues into what a speaker is saying, albeit those clues are not at the forefront of the speaker’s awareness. For instance, language is inextricably bound up with attention to gender. The English-speaking world uses pronouns that specify gender, though masculine pronouns and nouns have been traditionally used in reference to all people irrespective of gender (e.g. mankind, man-made, freshman), and we can see this regarding the gendered pronouns referencing people’s activities and occupations. When talking about a salesman, you are cued with specific expectations of his clothing, stature, physique, physiognomy, hair style, vocal timbre etc. when you go looking for him. The same cannot be said if he is referred to as a salesclerk. In that case, you don’t know what to expect.

Gender-neutral language has been recommended by the American Psychological Association to mitigate gender-biased thinking. And that is not surprising considering all our raucous donnybrooks about how people are rated, judged, and promoted based on their genitalia in the workplace. [1]

More on this topic will be addressed in later posts. Stay tuned.

[1] Psychology: A Discovery Experience, Stephen L. Franzoi, Chapter 14.1, pg. 410, copyright 2015.




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