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Does Language Shape How We Think?

When we talk about language, we often dig down to “universal” categories like nouns & verbs, consonants & vowels, phrases & sentences. We end up with these cross-language concepts that individual languages are built on, almost as if the colorful diversity found in the world’s languages is just icing on the strong unity of the linguistic cake. And LANGUAGE is grounded in our way of thinking and processing information, which is itself universal among humans. So, languages and cultures are superficial, but language and cognition run deep. But this isn’t the only way to look at language. What if the language we are brought up to speak actually relates to the way we look at reality? From this perspective, a language is a particular way of conceptualizing the world, and has close ties to culture. In the 1930’s, Benjamin Lee Whorf talked about language this way. Building on his mentor, Edward Sapir, he argued that different languages represent different ways of thinking about the world around us. This view has come to be called linguistic relativity. Because of this idea, Whorf was on the lookout for examples of language being culturally bound. Exploring the grammar of the Hopi language, he concluded that the Hopi have an entirely different concept of “time” than European languages do, and that the European concepts of “time” and “matter” are actually conditioned by language itself. One practical consequence of linguistic relativity: direct translation between languages isn’t always possible. Since Hopi and English aren’t simply ways of expressing the same thing in different words, you can’t preserve thoughts or viewpoints when you translate between them. In its strongest expression, linguistic relativity – the idea that viewpoints vary from language to language – relies on linguistic determinism – the idea that language determines thought. In other words, how people think doesn’t just vary depending on their language, but is actually grounded in, determined by, the specific language of their community. Linguistic relativity has been abandoned and criticized over the decades, with critics aiming to show that perception and cognition are universal, not tied to language and culture. But some psychologists and anthropologists continue to argue that differences in a language’s structure and words may play a role in determining how we think. Experiments on how color terms influence color perception and how speakers of different languages approach non-linguistic tasks continue to spark debate.



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