There’s this popular and tantalising theory that the language we speak (and, indeed, think in) shapes our thoughts and the way we interact with the world. You can see how the idea makes sense. After all, language is such an integral part of being a human and the clearest (if not only) conduit for our thoughts. It should correspond, then, that the way we’re able to express the thoughts also somehow filters their content. Theories along those lines have been around for decades and show no signs of leaving the popular consciousness any time soon.
So, today, we’re going to take a look at if and how much the language we speak influences the way we think. We’re going to start off the two-part post with a short introduction and history of the idea that our language shapes our thoughts.
Birth of linguistic relativism
The idea that language influences the way we think was first developed and popularised by Benjamin Whorf who built upon the work of his mentor Edward Sapir. What followed is accordingly named the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or simply referred to as Whorfianism.
What’s possibly rather surprising, however, is that Whorf was not a professional linguist but actually worked out his theories alongside his day job in the engineering sector. He did, however, achieve a rather esteemed status as a self-taught linguist and even held a temporary position at Yale University, taking over for Sapir who was on a sabbatical. Whorf was a gifted speaker, who gave many popular talks on linguistics in his lifetime and managed to convey his theories clearly even to layman.
Whorf himself preferred the name “linguistic relativity” for his theory because he wanted to draw a parallel to Einstein’s work on physical relativity. In a similar vein to Einstein’s theory, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is supposed to refer to how a language’s grammar and semantic categories provide a framework through which a person makes observations about the world. Of course, there’s plenty of room for interpretation as to how much language actually shapes thought. Is it only a minuscule nudge in a certain direction or a very strict frame of reference? Whorf himself seemed to prefer the rather strict interpretation, also known as linguistic determinism.
Whorf’s examples of timeless and snow-ful language
One of the most famous examples Whorf gave when discussing his theory was based on the Native American Hopi language spoken in northeastern Arizona. Whorf claimed that since there are no grammatical tenses to show the passage of time – no past, present, or future – in the Hopi language, their sense of the world must be entirely different from that of speakers of languages which have those features. He seemed to think that since there are no grammatical forms to show whether an action happened yesterday, is currently ongoing, or will take place in the future, the Hopi “have no concept of time”.
Additionally, he used the examples of other Native American languages, such as Inuit, spoken in the far north that evidently have a lot more words for the concept of “snow” than English. (The exact number quoted really depends on who is retelling the story.) This supposedly shows that people living in snowy conditions have a very different understanding of the phenomena that we bring together under the one umbrella term of “snow”.
Hopi’s timelessness-less and other criticism
However, in the subsequent years, when Whorf’s theory became under increased scrutiny, it became clear that his most popular examples don’t really hold up that well.
To start with, the Hopi actually manage to express the concept of time rather well in their everyday speech. While they don’t have specific grammatical tenses for time, the Hopi do make use of affixes that show whether the action happens in the future and there are other markers that add a time-fulness to verbs.
As for the Inuit words for snow, the hypothesis has now generally also been debunked, although there is still quite a lot of confusion about the question. To start with, the Inuit language forms words very differently from English, so what might seem like separate words to English-speakers, can really simply be derivatives of the same root. So, the question also becomes what to consider a word, a word root, and so on. According to one source, there are actually only two roots – qanik and aput – that are used to create words about snow.
Whorf’s downfall and re-emergence
Because of the glaring holes in his hypothesis and following studies not supporting his findings, Whorf’s theory gradually started losing its popularity in the 1950s. As the criticism mounted, the idea even became somewhat taboo. The turn of trend was so profound that, at one point, Whorf was described as “one of the prime whipping boys of introductory texts to linguistics”.
However, starting in the 1990s, linguistic relativism has had somewhat of a comeback. Although the strong version of the theory – linguistic determinism – remains very much refuted, there has been more advancement in the weaker area and some studies have seemed to show that what we speak does, in fact, have some influence on how we perceive the world.
We will focus on how and how much language does actually shape the way we think in part 2 of this post. You can find the conclusion to this blog series in Part 3, which examines why Whorf’s idea is still so popular and what that line of argument leads to.