Philosophy of Language

Does language affect the way you think about the world?

A radically positive answer to this question is a strong form of the linguistic relativity thesis, which says that the language you speak broadly affects or even determines the way you experience the world, from the way you perceive it, to the way to categorize it, to the way you cognize it. This radical thesis is often associated with the early-to-mid 20th century linguistic anthropologists Eric Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, and sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf thesis (though, for the record, there is a lot of controversy about what Whorf’s views actually were).

This notion might strike many as crazy. You might think that how you perceive the world is simply a relationship between your sensory systems and objective reality. Even if the way you think about the world is influenced by culture, personal experience, and upbringing, the grammar or vocabulary of the language you speak plays no role in shaping your experience. Language is merely how you give voice to what you experience, not a determining force on what you experience.

People like Sapir and Whorf thought that this idea of the relationship between an objective reality and language is a mere illusion. Their thought was essentially that people around the world speak different languages, with difference structural features (grammar, syntax) and different vocabularies (lexicon), and this influences the conceptual system that they bring to each and every experience of the world.

To consider but one example, Benjamin Whorf spent a lot of time studying the Native American language Hopi, which, he claimed, had no mass nouns. Mass nouns are words that describe substances like water, snow, meat, beer, flouras opposed to objects, like a chair, a person, a bottle. While English and other Indo-European languages have many mass nouns as well as count nouns, other languages like Japanese have entirely mass nouns with no or almost no count nouns. Hopi, Whorf claimed, has only count nouns. Whorf thought this difference in language reflected a very different categorization of the physical world. While for the speaker of a European language, the philosophical idea of an underlying substance or matter, which has extension but is not obviously bounded in any way, that can then be formed into an object (e.g. water formed into a bottle of water) is basic, a naïve reflection of language. But for the Hopi the world looks very different: this idea of an underlying substance is foreign; a speaker of Hopi does not see the world as full of water that can be formed into various objects, but, at the basic level, as full of objects like bottles of water, glasses of water, and lakes. (Whorf, “The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language” in Language, Thought, and Reality. MIT Press, 1956, 134-159)

The effect of language on thought is an empirically testable question, and since the time that the Sapir-Whorf thesis became popular there has been considerable work done to put it to the test (and there is still a lot of work being done, currently, and a lot more work to do!). For example, Li, Dunham, and Carey did an experiment on speakers of languages that have all mass nouns (like Japanese) versus ones that have more count nouns than mass (like English). This study found that on tasks that do not involve language, there is no difference in the ways in which monolingual Japanese speakers and monolingual English speakers perform on non-linguistic tasks involving masses of substance and objects. Though this study did not include a language like Hopi, with only count nouns, it is evidence in support of the hypothesis that the way the language categorizes the stuff of the world (into substance or object) has little effect on the way the speaker categorizes or conceptualizes the world.

Few people these days believe something as strong as the strongest version of the Sapir-Whorf thesis – that our experiences are largely determined by the language we speak. But there are many neo-Whorfians doing experimental work to show that the language one speaks has some measurable effect on one’s experience of the world. For example, neo-Whorfian psychologist Lera Boroditsky has run dozens of experiments that seem to point to the conclusion that many different aspects of thought are in fact influenced by language. In one case, Boroditsky and colleagues ran a series of experiments testing whether the grammatical gender associated with a noun had an effect on how people perceive the object named by the noun. Unlike English, many languages have grammatical genders associated with nouns, the most common being feminine and masculine. These genders can manifest themselves in grammatical rules like which article is correct to use with a noun, agreement of adjectives or verbs and more.

Grammatical gender is generally arbitrary – something that is masculine in one language may be feminine in another and vice versa. So what Boroditsky and others tested was whether this arbitrary associated of gender with words had any effect on whether people think of various objects as masculine or feminine. For example, in one such study, they tested native speakers of Spanish and German by asking them to name (in English) the first 3 adjectives that came to mind to describe each of 24 objects (named in English) on a list. The 24 objects each had opposite genders in each language. In general, the participants came up with adjectives that were more stereotypically masculine if the word for the object was masculine in their language and more stereotypically feminine if it was feminine. For example, for the word “key”, which is masculine in German, German speakers said things like hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful. At the same time, the word for key is feminine in Spanish and Spanish speakers came up with adjectives like golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny.

If any part of neo-Whorfianism like this is correct, what consequences does it have for how we gain knowledge of the world (epistemology)? Do experiments like Boroditsky’s imply that German and Spanish speakers actually perceive certain objects differently? And if this is the case, if we do in fact all have different experiences that are affected by the language we speak, can we say that some experiences are more correct than others? Could it be that some languages are more accurate than others? If not, what does this mean for the metaphysical notion of an objective reality?


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The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

See Also

Philosophy of Language @ IEP