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 connaîtresavoir 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:

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?

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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Meet The Author:
Author - Lilia Mouma
Lilia Mouma
Linguist at Mango Languages
With an MA in Linguistics, a true syntactician by nature, education, and profession, Lilia grew up among dictionaries, learning languages and enjoying the ways people express concepts. She is a Mango linguist and has had the privilege of working on a great number of languages, perfecting her grammar structures knowledge. When not working on languages, she tries out whatever sounds interesting, from knitting, to rowing, to singing.

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