By: Chatrin Suksasilp (Bugle Team)
Edited by: Robert Vilkelis (Bugle Team)
One of the more intriguing – if not outright fascinating – claims made by the enterprise of linguistic and anthropological study is that the language you speak determines the thoughts you have. Anyone acquainted with the study of Language would probably recognise this proposition as the Linguistic Determinism or Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Dig a little deeper, and you find yourself in a niche of inquiry far more controversial than you’d bargained for.
It all started in 1940 when Benjamin Lee Whorf, an amateur scholar of Native American languages, made a claim that enthrals and frustrates scholars to this day:
“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages… the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.”
Not only do the idiosyncrasies of our native language constrain our thoughts, said Whorf, they necessarily colour our experience of the world without our being conscious of the fact – startling differences between the minds of those who speak different languages.
The evidence Whorf presented was equally gripping: Eskimos have numerous words for the one English word “snow”, reflecting their acute experience of the wintry landscape; the Hopi people of Arizona have no grammatical forms for time and therefore could not conceive of time as a linear flow of past, present and future.
Note that Whorf’s ideas are a) pretty amazing, and b) pretty outlandish. They drew as many enthusiasts as they did detractors, who argue to this day. One of the (harsher) critics is prominent psychologist Steven Pinker, who holds succint views on the Whorfian hypothesis: “It is wrong. It is all wrong.”. Pinker points out the flaw in Whorf’s logic: Whorf explains the Eskimos’ sophisticated mental concepts of snow with the number of words they have for it, without actually having real evidence for any sophisticated mental phenomena. Similarly, how did Whorf know that the Hopi could not mentally conceive of time? Whorf’s claims appear to rely more on speculation and circular reasoning.
These criticisms, combined with the Cognitive Revolution in Psychology and Linguistics, led to a decline in interest after the 1950’s. The intellectual school of thought in both the science and philosophy of mind shifted to focus on the universal aspects of language and mind. The argument goes: all humans have largely the same genetic endowment and, therefore, have largely the same kind of brain functions and mental experiences regardless of culture or language. As you’ve been reading all of this, you may have been thinking the same thing – and it’s one of the most important points in the debate.
Ever had a thought that you couldn’t quite put into words? You just refuted Linguistic Determinism. Self-evident phenomena of this kind are proof that thought comes before language, and not the other way round.
So what does that mean for the whole research project? Even though we’ve discredited Linguistic Determinism, we haven’t eliminated the possibility of a relationship between language and thought of some form. Indeed, resoundingly refuting Whorf has allowed modern-day researchers to reformulate and reinvestigate the hypothesis.
Embracing the cognitive paradigm, we can safely assume that the basic building blocks of meaning in the mind are universal, and that they determine the basic building blocks of language. However, different languages require speakers to use these linguistic elements in different ways – so, do these mandatory habits enforced by the kind of language you speak have a converse effect on your non-linguistic thought?
A growing number of scientists have been investigating this more flexible hypothesis, named Linguistic Relativity – and again, they give us pretty startling results.
How accurately can you point to North? Can you reliably point to North at all? What if I told you that some people can?
Unlike English speakers who talk of directions in terms of left and right, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers only ever use the cardinal compass directions (North, East, South, West and everything in between). This means they must always be aware of their orientation to even hold a conversation. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics show that speakers of these cardinal-direction languages are incredibly good at keeping track of where they are in foreign places, even better than the locals.
Unlike Whorf, these neo-Whorfian researchers have legitimate empirical data for both the linguistic half of the claim and the psychological half. However, disputes remain: how can we be absolutely sure that language causes the psychological phenomenon? Perhaps a third factor determines both language and thought: culture – but where does one end and the other begin?
Where does that leave us with Linguistic Relativity? The jury, as it always has been, is still out. As new research comes in, so do conceptual and methodological objections to existing findings. That said, scientists are finding cleverer ways of experimentally isolating a clear causal link between language and thought and drawing more and more interest in the subject. I mean, it’s what made me to go to university, so that’s something. So, for all of its checkered past, it’s been – and hopefully will continue to be – exciting times for this curious little pocket of human nature.
Boroditsky, L. (2011). How language shapes thought. Scientific American, 304(2), 62-65.
Gumperz, J. J. (1996). Rethinking linguistic relativity (No. 17). Cambridge University Press.
Pinker, S. (1995). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind (Vol. 7529). Penguin UK.
Whorf, B. L. (1940). Science and linguistics (pp. 207-219). Bobbs-Merrill.