Does The Language You Speak Shape The Way You Think?

Does The Language You Speak Shape The Way You Think?

The question of how, or if, the language we speak has an effect on our perception of the world we inhabit has been around for some time. In fact, there is a name for it, it’s known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Also called the Sapir-Whorf Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis Consideration of the relationship between language and thought even dates back to ancient times. For example, Plato claimed that the world was based on eternal ideas, yet also that eternal truth is impossible to express in words. More recently, Kant argued that language was just one of the means people could employ to experience the world.

Sapir and Whorf were both 20th-century linguists, and although there is no single jointly published work by them on their hypothesis, linguists over the years have propagated the debate on how the language we speak may influence our understanding of our surroundings.

Examples in different cultures.

You’re probably familiar with statements such as, “Eskimos have 13 words for ‘snow’”, and English speakers in France might be surprised to learn that the French have no single translatable word for ‘knuckle’ (the French equivalent is ‘an articulation of the finger’). Now, if we’re thinking about how language affects our understanding of the world, we could actually argue that Eskimos therefore have a better understanding of the concept of ‘snow’, and the French have a lesser understanding of fingers!

This is what we’d call linguistic determinism – that’s to say our knowledge is fundamentally determined by the way our native language is able to describe what we see, know, and experience. Linguists class this as a strong form of linguistic relativity.

By extension, if we say that knowledge is determined by the language we speak, we are also saying implicitly that our knowledge is limited by the ability of our language to express thoughts, ideas, experience, and so on

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is not just about linguistic determinism, and these are exaggerated examples, but they give you an idea of how the meaning-making resources a particular language possesses may have knock-on effects on the way we communicate with speakers of other languages and those living in other cultural environments.

By definition, a hypothesis, is just a starting point for investigation and discussion, so what are your thoughts on this? What might the implications be for bilingual and multilingual people?

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