In the previous parts of this series, we’ve looked at the history of the idea that your mother tongue guides your everyday thoughts and how well this theory is grounded in science. While there is evidence that your native language can have minor effects on your perception of the world, they are nowhere near as influential as originally posited. However, the idea that the language you speak is a vehicle for your thoughts and it actually shapes the way you see the world keeps sticking around. So, in today’s article, we’re going look at some possible reasons for why people cling to the idea of language shaping our thoughts, contrary to available evidence in the field.
Language as a medium for thought
The most obvious answer could be that since language seems like such an inherent part of our thought process, how could it be that it doesn’t affect the way you see the world? After all, doesn’t everything that crosses your mind come to you in the form of internal speech? So, if your language doesn’t recognise a specific concept, how could it even occur to you to include it in your interactions with the world.
When Whorf first came out with the idea that the Hopi don’t experience time the same way most speakers of other Western languages, that is essentially what he was getting at. If there are no future or past markers in your native language, can you even perceive the passage of time as a linear process? Or, as the film Arrival recently popularised, would you then think of time as circular and, you know, develop superpowers of experiencing both future and past events simultaneously? (That last point might not actually be on the list of even the most strident supporters of the hypothesis.)
However, if followed, that line of thought can lead you down some dark alleyways of speculation, as we’ll later see.
Surprise! Languages are different
If you happen to be a monolingual speaker of a major Western language, it may actually come as a shock how different some of the 7000 languages of the world are from the one you’re used to speaking (and thinking) in.
There are languages with countless conjugations and languages which require you to use evidentiality markers. Meaning that, in casual everyday speech, you need to include where you got the information you’re conveying – did someone tell you that Mary is in the shop or did you see her in the shop yourself. This is often done by adding a certain suffix to the verb to let your listeners know the source of your intel. In the Cree language(s), you need to specify what tool you’re using to carry out an action – depending on whether you are cutting the carrots with a knife, using an axe, or karate-chopping them by hand, all of the verbs you would use differ from each other. In Japanese and Korean, you use different types of words depending on whether you’re talking about a person of higher social status or of one on the same level as you. The Russians don’t have a separate word for “house” and “home” – they’re both just дом. The list goes on and on.
The point is that languages vary widely in what they busy themselves with. Some use an extensive system of prefixes and suffixes, some are more telegraphic than others, some have a word for concepts like “schadenfreude”, some don’t. The way a language changes over time has much to do with chance, some with culture, and a bit with outside influence. However, it’s hard to take the differences between languages as evidence for the internal world of their speakers.
What does English tell us about the English?
To highlight the previous point, let’s take a look at a language most of us are more familiar with than Cree or Archi.
English, for example, doesn’t have a polite version of “you”, unlike the German “Sie” or the Spanish “Usted”. English also has much less use for the conjugation tables, which anyone who’s ever tried learning a foreign language is all too familiar with – there is no I runa, you rune, he/she runet. But what does that tell us about the way English-speakers see the world? Do they float about, unable to tell the difference between I doing the running and you? Are they blissfully unaware of hierarchies of any kind because their language doesn’t have that difference?
In English, you know both a person and that two plus two equals four. In German, you use the verb kennen to know a person and wissen for the more abstract kind of knowledge. In English, you have both a sister and a book, as opposed to many other languages where you can possess things but Have (with a capital H) a family member. (Sure, an argument can be made that there is the verb possess in the language but, really, who uses that?) Does all of that mean that English-speakers are naturally callous and can’t differentiate between having siblings or mopeds, or knowing the multiplication table or your partner?
Conclusion – Exotic languages don’t mean exotic thoughts
When looking at the idiosyncrasies of English, the idea that the people who speak it natively are somehow extremely influenced by their language starts to seem a lot more preposterous. But why then does it seem so intuitive when looking at the more exotic languages?
It could be argued that belief in the myth of “the Eskimo snow words” or Hopi’s timelessness both seem to stem from some Rousseauean yearning for noble savages who are granted with some eternal knowledge we, the overly civilised and far-from-nature peoples, are not (or no longer) privy to. At least that is where the argument seems to take you once you follow it to its logical conclusion. And that starts to signify the real problem with Whorfianism. The fact that he came up with the hypothesis during an era of newfound interest in, and romanticisation of, native cultures only seems to strengthen the case for calling linguistic relativity a mild form of cultural voyeurism.
And so, while it might seem tempting to look at some of more peculiar things languages choose to express as evidence for their speakers’ deep insight into The Way Things Really Are, it pays to keep in mind that there really is no evidence to support the idea. There is no special grammar which would make you appreciate time moving in a circular manner and you won’t suddenly start seeing more colours if you invent words for them. The simple truth is that all languages have their little quirks, which really are not a hidden vehicle of some undiscovered Great Truth.
However, if you’re more interested in exploring the idea further, then feel free to check out the previous posts in this series. The first part deals with the history of linguistic relativism and the second with the contemporary evidence that supports the idea.