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Language and thought: Is it a chicken-egg dilemma?


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, aka “linguistic relativity” or “Whorfianism,” has reigned for some time in the past and resurges from time to time. The idea is that the language you speak determines (or influences) the way you see and understand the world around you.

The stronger form of the hypothesis has been rejected but the milder one has many proponents. In his speech in the Polyglot Conference in New York, Professor John McWhorter shed some light on this controversial issue.

He started his speech by giving examples of what the hypothesis has led people to say and believe. One example addressed the difference between connaître and savoir in French, both of which are translated as “to know” in English. The first verb is used when you know someone or when you are familiar with a person or a thing (as in “I know John”) and the second verb is used when you know that something is true or when you know how to do something. So, some people believe that while this distinction may be difficult or confusing to an English speaker, the French speakers have it hardwired in their brain and they split the world according to this distinction.

Another example is the idea that the Kawesqars (a people living in Chile) do not have future tense in their language because they were nomads and moved constantly by canoe, so future tense was not important for them and they didn’t have future tense. Does this mean that they could not think in future tense terms?

The hypothesis that language affects thought is true to a certain extent, as experiments have shown. For example, in an experiment with connaître, savoir and know, if there was such an experiment, French speakers would perform much better than English speakers. English speakers say “long time” and Spanish speakers say mucho tiempo (a lot of time), so English speakers perceive that notion of time as length while Spanish speakers perceive it as quantity. Hence, English speakers are better in relevant experiments having to do with length while Spanish speakers fare better with quantity. However, “How your language works affects how you process certain aspects of existing in very subtle ways that have nothing to do with what most of us would call living or significance.” In other words, there are differences between speakers of different languages but these differences are not life-changing.

Why would we care if language affects thought?

Here are the four reasons that Prof. McWhorter mentioned:

  1. Languages of the people in the Amazon are very complex in that they add evidential markers in every sentence, i.e. markers like “I heard that…” “I see…,” “I am not sure…” that qualify the sentence depending on how sure the speaker is of an action or event. This means that they are keen hunters. In Europe, only the Bulgarian and Macedonian languages (which are actually the same language) have evidential markers, but Bulgarians are by no means keen hunters. Also, these markers are more common in the Native American languages in the west and not the east, and given that both people had the same needs, this raises the question, “Why?”, especially since in the eastern states, the need to have markers because of the harsher environment would be better justified. So, are these markers culturally imposed? It looks like the markers (or the subjunctive) is mere chance and “Language features do not correlate with what their speakers look like.”
  2. Does language create the thought pattern or is it the other way around? The Inuit do have more words for snow than English. Does that fact shape their thought or make them sensitive to different snow forms or do they simply have more words for snow because they live in snow? Or the Guugu Yimithirr people in Australia do not have words for “behind” or “in front of,” they only have and use “north.” Does this mean that they cannot think that something is behind them because they do not have a word for “behind”? No, this is because they live in a flat land so it behooves them to have words for “north” etc. If you move these people to a land with mountains or trees, “north” etc would be the first thing that would fall off the language.
  3. Whorfianism divides languages into superior and inferior. Prof Mc Whorter gave the following example to Illustrate the point: he said that Chinese does not have conditional structures (structures like “If X, then Y”) like English and added that this has led to the assumption that Chinese people are not as clever as other people because they cannot understand or are not sensitive to counterfactuality. Prof. McWhorter continued to say that while it is true that Chinese speakers didn’t perform well in artificial experiments on counterfactuality - but this was to an insignificant degree - the above mentioned assumption has been disproved in all these years of Chinese existence and culture. Reaching conclusions about people’s intelligence based on the structure of their language is wrong, to say the least. Another language, Managu, does not differentiate between “to eat,” “to drink,” “to smoke.” Does this mean that the Managu people are totally indifferent to what they eat or drink? Quite the contrary.
  4. Is it true that same-language speakers have the same “world view”? Then, what is the “world view” for English speakers? There are so many English speakers that if you think that they all have a common world view, you instantly understand that this cannot be true.

Prof. McWhorter continued his talk by saying that “languages are like soup,” in the sense that they are much more complex and specific than they need to be. Just like the soup: you cannot predict when or where the next bubble will appear. So, some languages have evidential markers, just because. Where you would expect a language to also have evidential markers, it simply doesn’t. The most important are the evidential markers. Things cannot be predicted, and languages are marvellous this way. Then why does Whorfianism matter?

  1. It’s not true.
  2. It’s dangerous - it claims that some languages are inferior.
  3. It’s condescending - Westerners say that non-industrial cultures are “sensitive to their environment” and such, meaning “more sensitive than them,” and they try to show that these cultures are better while they do not truly believe it.  

In all, cultures demonstrate our diversity - we are different, while languages demonstrate our similarities, and both are worth celebration.

We suggest enjoying Prof. McWhorter's entire talk "Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language." 


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What’s word order got to do with it?
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Lilia Mouma
Written by Lilia Mouma

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