We use language to describe our subjective perception of the world. If I say “I feel cold”, then I use language to describe how I feel. This is nothing new. The interesting question now is: does it also work the other way around? Can the language that we use influence the way that we perceive and view things?
The idea that that the language that we use can influence the way that we think is nothing new. According to the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis (also known as linguistic relativity) language does not only reflect our way of thinking, but is also able to shape it. This hypothesis became known in the 1950s. People from different cultures and languages view the world differently and organize their reality differently. The way that they think is influenced by the grammar and vocabulary of their language. To bring it directly to the point: there are certain thoughts and ideas that can only be thought in a particular language. These ideas and concepts do not exist in other languages. In this episode I’d like to give you several examples that illustrate this point.
People organize space and time based on the language that they use. Researchers from Stanford University (1) conducted the following experiment. They showed people speaking different languages picture cards with faces of people with a different age. The researchers asked the people to arrange the cards according to age. People who speak English arranged the cards from left to right, this reflects the direction of their writing. For them, young is on the left and old is on the right. For them, time flows from left to right. People who write Hebrew arranged the cards from right to left, this too reflects their writing. The Kuuk Thaayorre are Australian Aborigines. They do not use the words “left” and “right”, which are relative to the observer. Instead, they use the terms “north”, “south”, “east”, and “west”. Instead of saying, “What are you holding in your left hand?” They’d say: “What are you holding in your north-east hand?” Unlike English speakers, the Kuuk Thaayorre use an absolute reference system for space, and not a relative one like speakers of other languages. The language that they use essentially forces them to stay oriented at all times, and indeed they have much fewer problems staying oriented in new surroundings, compared to speakers of other languages. So how did the Kuuk Thaayorre arranged the cards? Maybe you have guessed – they arranged them from east to west. Why not west to east? I suppose that this has something to do with the direction of the sun moving, which also moves from east to west, and which reflects time.
Color perception is a second example (1), which demonstrates how language can influence cognitive ability. In the Russian language, for example, there is no single name for the color blue. If an English speaker says “The pen is blue”, then the pen could be any shade of blue, from light blue to dark blue. The Russian language requires the speaker to make a distinction. The person must say “The pen is light blue” or “The pen is dark blue”, because a general term for “blue” does not exist. Researchers found out that speakers of the Russian language are indeed capable to keeping apart different shades of blue much better than speakers of languages which do not force speakers to make this distinction. In short: Learn to speak Russian if you want to improve your color perception. How can this be explained? How can language influence the perception of color? I think the explanation is not even so difficult. The language Russian requires the people to distinguish different colors, and for this reason the people have simply more training in distinguishing the colors. Seeing different colors can therefore also be learned.
George Orwell’s book 1984 describes the language “Newspeak” which serves as a further example of the Saphir-Whorf-Hypothesis. In this language the meaning of vocabulary words was controlled by the government to make certain thoughts not thinkable anymore. For example the word “free” in Newspeak could only be used in contexts such as “the dog is free of lice”, but it could not be used “freedom in thinking” or “freedom of speech”, etc.
The question that know ask myself is, if there is no word for a particular idea or concept, does it mean that the people are not aware of the existence of this concept at all? In the Arapaho culture, for example, there is only one word for “father” and for “uncle” (2). Does this now mean that a child of this culture does not differentiate between his/her own father and the uncle? I (personally) do not think so, but this is something that the anthropologists have to answer. As so often, I think that the answer is somewhere in between. There are certainly many concepts that depend very strongly on language. Other concepts may simply not have a particular vocabulary word for it. I want to give you a second example. Traditional Japanese language does not have a word for “privacy”. Does this mean that the concept of privacy is completely absent in Japanese culture? Certainly different cultural perceptions concerning privacy do exist, but I can not imagine a complete absence of this concept. Apparently there was a need for a word and for this reason the English word for privacy was assimilated into the Japanese language and is pronounced “puraibashii” (2).
The consequence of the Sphir-Whorf-Hypothesis is far-reaching. Essentially it states that it is not possible to translate text from one language to another without losing meaning.
Here is my personal collection of words which exist in the German language but are difficult to translate into English. It is very easy in German to make new nouns by joining several words together. This also explains why some of these words are quite long.
- Torschlusspanik: A feeling of fear that one loses opportunities as one gets older.
- Zechpreller: A person who does not pay the food consumed at a restaurant.
- Politikverdossenheit: This translates into something like a “weariness/tiredness of politics”. “Politikverdrossenheit” is often attributed to low participation at elections.
- zwangsbeglücken: To make someone happy against their will. Example: If I invite you for dinner and make you eat the food against your will.
- Geisterfahrer: A car driver going into the wrong direction.
- Fernweh: A desire to go to another country. It can be compared to homesickness the other way around.
- Can you come up with English words that can not be easily translated into other languages?
- Do you know any concepts for which there are no appropriate words?
1. Boroditsky, Lera. “Edge: HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK?” EDGE. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html
2. Stafford, Amy. “Ethnolinguistics.” Minnesota State University, Mankato. http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/language/whorf.html
3. Masahiko Mizutani, James Dorsey and James H. Moor. “The internet and Japanese conception of privacy.” Ethics and Information Technology 6: 121–128, 2004.