Linguistic Relativity


Languages and how humans started to use it has been a topic widely regarded and discussed. Particularly in linguistics and psychology, a question has been brought forward relating to thought and syntax: Does the thought guide your language or is the primary language spoken the one determining the thoughts?

One of the most popular stances is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (a misnomer due to the fact that the research was never reinstated as a hypothesis and Sapir never coauthored anything with Whorf). From their findings, linguists created the concept of two versions; a weak version and a strong one.

In the weak version, also known as linguistic relativity, the language one uses influences their thought process. A common example offered is the following thought experiment. Imagine a girl pushing a boy. Now, think back on it. Was the girl standing on the right or the left side? Many English speakers will say that she was on the left and the boy on the right. Why is that? English language like all European languages is written and read from left-to-right.

The brain, already hardwired to its preferred language, continues the pattern.

If you spoke a language like Hebrew, which is read from right-to-left, you would have most likely imagined the exact opposite of the example.

Another stance of the hypothesis is the strong version. In this version, the language used is believed to determine the thought process. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher of language in the early 20th century, used a famous phrase, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” to describe this approach. This viewpoint is now largely discredited by linguists, but it brought forward examples of languages that perceive things differently from more common languages around the world. For example, aboriginal languages of Australia don’t have the concept of egocentric directions. Rather, they use geographic directions.

Although the position has its merits, it is believed that people observe the same things but sometimes lack the language to articulate their experiences and thoughts.

Linguistic relativity is a subject of great discussion and is still popular with the modern day linguists. More experiments and studies have shown multitudes of theories, all offering new insights into this phenomenon. Whether or not you support the Whorfian hypothesis, it is an intriguing topic to wonder about. Would you have a different outlook on life if you’ve known another language? If you’re bilingual, do you perceive the world differently than monolinguals? What if there are things that we will never be able to express with the language we know?

Extended Reading:

Language and Thought

Is There a Linguistic Relativity Principle?

Strong and Weak Versions of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Whorf Was Half Right

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