People have gone all over the world to answer one particular question and that is whether or not our languages shape the way individuals think. Linguistic experts, in particular, have been paying close attention to this question since the 40s, coming up with the concept of linguistic relativity. If you were to speak French, you may start to think more fashionable than before whereas if you started speaking Swedish, you may just start feeling really good about taxation all of a sudden. You know, we joke, but basically, that is what linguistic relativity is all about.
Linguistic Relativity: Sapir-Whorf Theory
A linguistic expert named Benjamin Lee Whorf studied an African American language that was locally spoken in northeastern Arizona called Hopi. In his studies, Whorf found out that people who speak Hopi perceive the world differently than the people who natively speak English, due to the differences that are present in both languages. The very principle of linguistic relativity is also referred to as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism.
Language and Thoughts
Linguistic relativity implies that language does affect the way we think. Whorf wrote an essay in the 40s, one that was greatly influenced by Einsteinian physics. In this study, Whorf simply deduced that with the help of altered physical evidence, many individual observers have a different view of the world that we all see. The only way that this can be different, and their view can become a common one, is if they all collectively speak one native language.
Native Languages and Their Differences
There is a language spoken in North Queensland of Australia called Guugu Timithirr that doesn’t contain words like left, right, front or back. As an alternative, native speakers of this language use words such as east, west, south, and north to describe locations. Suppose you speak this language and you are standing in front of a house. In this hypothetical, you will not use the word front. You will describe yourself as standing east of the house.
This begs the question of whether it is the language that has affected our way of thinking or if it has been our culture. Perhaps it has been both. When mixed together, there are thousands of different outcomes and not all of them share the same view of the world.
This problem of language isn’t only restricted to words but rather, it goes beyond it and also holds forms of verbs responsible. Present or past verb tenses describe to us what has happened. Like whether Mary walks or Mary walked. The previously mentioned language called Hopi doesn’t work like that. Instead, the verbs in this language work more in a way that describes how the speaker obtained the knowledge. Hopi has terms that allow the speaker to narrate first-hand knowledge. English speakers may even use this in a way and say I observed as Mary walked but there is no rule in the English language that requires this.
Language is Not The Only Factor
Even though language is the dominant factor that influences thoughts, as identified by the principle of linguistic relativity, it is not the only one. While people may think in language, they also think in the form of mental images and sensations that would be too difficult to be put into words, regardless of the language. What language essentially does is that it describes a feeling in a way that can be understood by others since they can’t feel what you have felt. Suppose you are reminiscing listening to your mother play piano when you were a child. In order to explain this to someone, you will use words of a language. But say, you speak English and the person in front of you speaks Hopi, then many meanings will get lost in translation and the other person won’t fully understand the bigger picture that you are trying to convey.
Being bilingual, however, changes the entire game. Understanding one language, say English, can give you a whole new perspective on learning and speaking another language that isn’t native to you. This is how you may be able to better convey the bigger picture, which is something a unilingual may find hard to do.
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