How Does Language Shape the
Way we Perceive the World?
By Mladen Stojak
Can you imagine a world where there is no before and after, no cause and effect? A world where time is not linear, but circular? This is exactly like the world that linguist Louise Banks encounters in the science-fiction movie Arrival.
Louise is called in to try and communicate with an alien species that has landed in several locations around the world. While getting to know them, she realizes that the species’ orthography is not linear. Their written language moves in circles, their sentences have no beginning or end. This is also reflected in their notion of time, which is also non-linear.
Although establishing contact with aliens is currently a matter of sci-fi, the movie touches upon a very interesting topic: how our language shapes the way we perceive the world.
Understanding the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
By showing how Louise’s concept of time started to change after becoming familiar with the alien language, Arrival is probably the best-known pop culture representation of a concept known as linguistic relativity, more formally referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
In the 1940s, two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, independently concluded that the structure of a language influences how its speakers perceive and experience the world. In his book Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, Sapir wrote that “human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.”
He then continues to explain how the real world is, to a large extent, unconsciously built on the linguistic habits of a particular group. The language we speak and the community that we belong to both shape how we interpret the world, he argued.
Meanwhile, in a linguistics department at Yale University, Whorf was developing his own views on linguistic relativity. He noted that Hopi speakers in the southwestern region of the United States expressed time in a rather peculiar way: According to Whorf, Hopi didn’t seem to have a word for time. Linguists have since scrutinized his claim and deemed it to be inaccurate and a result of shoddy linguistic workmanship, but nonetheless, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis remains a component of many linguistics courses across the world.
And while Whorf’s ideas about time in Hopi aren’t widely accepted anymore, research has shown there are other cultures whose concept of time is different than a conventionally linear before and after. This seems to conflict with the way English and most other languages express time.
The words we use reflect our values
Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis remains widely debated among linguists, there are some basic truths to it that are generally accepted — in its broadest interpretation, linguists tend to agree that the structure of a language and the way certain concepts are expressed in that language influences the way its speakers perceive the world. Modern research is now focused on determining the exact extent to which this occurs.
Linguists agree that if one language has a word for a certain notion, it’s there for a reason. Likewise, if a language lacks a certain word, that’s also not something to be overlooked.
Speakers of languages that have clear grammatical distinctions for gender, time, number, or animacy are more aware of those concepts and they have a deeper meaning in the social fabric of the group. For example, Hebrew words and sentences are very gendered, while Finnish doesn’t mark gender at all. Children whose mother tongue is Hebrew, a study showed, were aware of their gender a year earlier than Finnish kids.
It’s important to note how dynamic our relationship with language is. In the 21st century, where the concept of gender fluidity is becoming more common, people shape language to match their gender expression or a belief that gender is a non-binary category. This is just one of many reasons why it is so important to respect a person’s preferred gender pronouns.
The power of language to shape thought should not be underestimated
The concept of the power of language to shape our view of reality was vividly depicted in George Orwell’s novel 1984. The authoritarian government manipulatively used the language Newspeak to influence how citizens perceived their reality.
The language had simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary designed to limit the individual’s ability to imagine and articulate concepts typical for free-thinking, liberal societies (e.g. personal identity, self-expression, free will). Simple terms and simple meanings naturally diminish people’s ability to think critically.
Orwell’s main idea is that linguistic decline inevitably leads to the decline of thought. Or, as he put it in his essay Politics and the English Language: If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
Language shapes our perception of color
Now, let’s talk about color perception. It’s quite fascinating that there’s no sure way to prove that we see and experience reality the same way another person does. We might be looking at the same wall and call it green, but the actual shade of green we see individually might be different. Just remember the viral phenomenon of that dress in 2015 and the endless arguments about its true color.
But what happens if we don’t have a name for the color we encounter? Generally, there are two main linguistic directions. Universalists believe that categorical perception of color is a universal perceptual effect. According to them, it’s not language-specific. On the other hand, relativists argue that categorical perception of color is influenced by language categories (i.e., the words we use to communicate about colors).
A study published in 2019 explored the relationship between language and perception by comparing Mongolian and Chinese speakers’ color perception:
“Chinese (Mandarin) and Mongolian color terms divide the blue spectrum differently but the green spectrum, similarly. In Mongolian, light blue (“qinker”) and dark blue (“huhe”) are strictly distinct, while both light green and dark green are described as one word, nogvgan. In Chinese, however, both light blue and dark blue are simply described by one word, lan, and both light green and dark green are described by a single word.”
The study found that human perception is shaped by both relativistic and universal forces. Language does play its role.
It’s also been established that our language can help us notice certain hues faster if we know their names. The article “Hues and Views” published by The American Psychological Association has provided evidence that Himba children can easily distinguish between very similar shades of green, something that other language speakers are not quite able to do. And one other study from 1954 found that speakers of Zuñi, who don’t have separate words for orange and yellow, have trouble differentiating between those two colors.
There’s an ant on your southwest leg
Lera Boroditsky is a researcher and professor in the fields of language and cognition. In her TED talk How Language Shapes the Way We Think, Boroditsky gives examples of speakers of the Australian Aboriginal language, the Kuuk Thayorre people. What’s interesting about their language is that they don’t use “left” or “right” to express spatial directions. Instead, they use cardinal directions like north, south, east, and west.
This reflects their outstanding sense of spatial orientation. It also means that they would say something like: “There’s an ant on your southwest leg.”
When it comes to spatial reasoning, it’s interesting that the English language typically uses a relative frame of reference to communicate spatial relationships. For example, an English-speaking person would say, “The ball is on the left side of the table,” but this statement is only true when spoken from a certain position. This is why it’s sometimes followed by the comical, “No, the other left.”
A speaker of Guugu Yimithirr (another Australian Aboriginal language) would say “The ball is north of the table,” which is an absolute frame of reference. Here, the language directly reflects how people move through space and what pointers matter from their perspective.
Charlemagne’s second soul: the impact of multiple languages
Medieval emperor Charlemagne is often attributed as the first to say that “to have a second language is to have a second soul.” Language is much more than a medium for expressing thoughts and feelings, Harvard students have found.
Linguists have raised many interesting hypotheses, such as whether or not switching to a different language can shape our tastes and preferences and make us more susceptible to certain ideas. If language embodies cultural values and signals our belonging to a certain group, does speaking a different language break these bonds, even temporarily?
“The beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and how flexible the human mind is,” Boroditsky says. “Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000.”
The fact that language shapes our view of the world also means that by learning a new language we’re able to enrich our perceptions and concepts of reality and get a glimpse of another one of those 7,000 universes.
Given the fact that empathy and the ability to truly understand the other side is crucial for great relationships and business success, learning a new language can potentially turn you into a kinder and more successful individual. How cool is that?
Mladen Stojak is founder and CEO at Ciklopea. He is a linguist by profession, an entrepreneur by passion with natural instinct and business acumen and has led Ciklopea through all stages of company development.
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