Does Linguistic Relativity Shape the World You Know?

June 21, 2017


For most of us that speak English, we are actually the odd one out among the world of languages when it comes to how the language we speak shapes the world we know. If you studied French or Spanish as a second language in school, you likely remember that those languages actually require the speaker to consider the gender of the person they are referencing. If you've ever been out with a friend of the opposite sex and did not want your significant other to know, all you have to do in English is avoid using "he" or "she". On the other hand, that is a good example of how our mother tongue may limit our view of the world.

Known in linguistic circles as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects a speaker's thoughts and actions as well as his or her cognition. First advanced by Edward Sapir in 1929, theories related to linguistic relativity were subsequently pursued by one of Sapir's students named Benjamin Whorf. The strongest form of the theory is linguistic determinism, which holds that language entirely determines the range of cognitive processes.

Although research has shown that one's native tongue does affect how they think about the world, the hypothesis of linguistic determinism is generally believed to be false. For example, even though English does not have a word like the German word that describes being alone in the woods, most of us can easily grasp the concept. On the other hand, research has demonstrated that people have difficulty recognizing colors that do have a unique word in their language. Speakers of indigenous Zuni cannot differentiate between yellow and orange as both hues belong to the same word.

In today's digital world, someone might argue that social communities like Facebook may have evolved out of American's need to expand the linguistic relativity of the English language. Unlike some Asian languages where linguistic encoding requires a person to be identified as "your aunt on your mother's side who is not married" merely by the use of a single word, we would need to check the person's "change in status" as well as the emoji they used to express their feelings to know those things. On the other hand, the digital world might already be well on the way to redefining how words are spelled and used for connecting in the Global Village.

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