Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Does Language Shape Reality?

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Is reality the same for everyone?

Some people think the language you speak may influence how you view the world. It may inform your prejudices, your beliefs and how you relate to everything around you.

What if English didn't have a word for "time?"

What if English didn't have a word for "time?"

For instance, what if your language had no concepts of time? How different would your world-view be? Kind of nice to think you could never be late for work, isn’t it?

This seemingly timeless aspect of one language is precisely what prompted a linguist studying the Hopi language to propose the idea of linguistic relativity. Also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, linguistic relativity says that because we use language to define our world, our world-view is defined by our language.

What’s that really mean?

According to this Hopi-studying guy, Benjamin Lee Whorf, we think in our native grammar. So we’re restricted to how we see and interact with the world by how we can understand it – through our language. And speakers of other languages are restricted, too, just in a different way.

Whorf’s hypotheses have been attacked since he first proposed them, not least because much of his supporting evidence was iffy. Still, he wasn’t the first to propose the idea, and despite some eyebrow-raising anecdotes he gave, most linguists find the notion linguistic relativity fairly plausible, if not as influential to a person’s cognition to the extent Whorf described.

Sexy bridges.

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you probably were astounded by grammatical gender. English doesn’t use grammatical genders, but other languages assign genders to their nouns and have a few ways to say “the” – German has der, die and das, and Spanish has el and la, for instance. (If this is unfamiliar, you can read about it here.)

I’m telling you this because in a recent report by Robert Krulwich of Radiolab fame, he discussed how speakers assign feminine or masculine attributes to a noun, based on its grammatical gender. Germans said bridges were “beautiful, elegant, slender,” while Spanish-speakers said bridges were “strong, sturdy, towering.”

No surprise that bridge is a feminine noun in German and masculine in Spanish.

The idea is that the speakers subconsciously associated different attributes with the same physical thing based on the grammatical gender in their native tongue.

Colors in language.

How different would you describe the world if there was only one word to describe both blue and green? This is apparently true of Arapaho. Maybe this is a slight thing but it still demonstrates how a different language sees the world through another lens.

Another interesting and fairly in-depth article from Stanford discusses, among other things, the idea of testing color perception as a good example of linguistic relativity. Because there are no natural boundaries in the spectrum of light to give universal breaks between colors, our definitions of blue or green or yellow are arbitrary. A language can separate colors in any number of ways (like Arapaho’s blue-green), and its speakers will view the world relative to the definitions in their own language.

Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

While I think that’s a pretty good definition, it still leaves open the question of how we interact with that reality and how we define it. If our concept of colors, which to most of us seem so concrete, is just arbitrary divisions, what other, more important fields are arbitrary and open to different interpretation?

Perhaps this is why we sometimes steal words from foreign languages. We just don’t have the capacity in English to express a certain idea, and so we find another word that has that certain … how do I say … je ne sais quoi.

Written by Nathanael Green

July 13, 2009 at 8:34 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I always found it interesting that in Japan, the green part of a traffic light is called aoi (blue). Even though Japanese has two words for green (one is the green of the natural world, the other’s from English), aoi is classified as a shade of green. It doesn’t really matter, though, since there are at least nine languages that have only a black/white distinction. (But hey, Pirahã doesn’t have any number words bigger than two.)

    Kevin Dickinson

    October 23, 2009 at 11:21 am

    • I haven’t heard of languages with just the black/white distinction, though the idea of limited numbers isn’t new. Still, it’s crazy to think that our perception of color and numbers (especially numbers, which seem so concrete).

      I recommend this podcast to everyone I meet because it’s consistently well done and extremely interesting, but this episode of Radio Lab ties in to this specifically. It’s a science show on NPR and in a recent edition they briefly talk about how some non-western languages deal with numbers and mathematics.

      Nathanael Green

      October 26, 2009 at 9:55 am

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