correct me if i'm wrong but you seemed to not like the concept of linguistic determinsim. what are your thoughts on the weak version of linguistic relativity though? while I agree that there are cultural differences at play when it comes to being able to speak two or more languages, the whole "viewing the world differently" or "feeling like a different person" seem off to me regardless, even making me cringe sometimes every time such an article pops up, may it be as academic as it can get
Ooooh it’s been so LONG since I’ve talked linguistics!
First of all, thank you for the ask! It’s out of nowhere and it makes me really happy to have this conversation.
Second, for those of you reading this and thinking, in utter confusion,
“what the bleep bloop is linguistic relativity?!”
Here’s the answer in wikipedia form.
My simplified explanation is that linguistic relativity, or, as it is commonly known, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, is the idea that the language(s) we speak in determines the limits of our thought processes. The strong version of this theory states that humans cannot conceptualize things beyond what they can say.
What the riff-raff does that mean? Well, as an example, let’s take colors. Languages all have different names for colors (were talking about common color names, not Eggshell - put down that Home Depot paint color sample, Sharon). Some languages have MORE names for colors than others.
For example! Russian has two words for blue - one is for light blues (голубой) and one is for dark blue (синий). They are different words and designate different ranges of the color scale, although in English they both fall under the single color (blue) which can later be diversified with other descriptors.
Following the strong theory of linguistic relativity, Russian-speaking people will have a greater understanding of these two colors and will be able to, let’s say, more quickly distinguish the difference between various shades of blue in a color test.
FURTHERMORE, following this same theory, languages which have LESS colors than the seven dominating ones in English (and many languages do have less color words) would be unable to see or identify the colors they have no names for. Instead, they would classify all colors into one of the colors the names for which they DO have. (If they only had words for 4 colors - say, Black, White, Red and Blue, they would sort Green into Blue and Orange would be Red categorically.)
You get the picture - if ya can’t say the color, you can’t see the difference. It’s just a very strong theory that states that Color Nerds who hang out in the Paint Sample Section too long develop mantis shrimp-like ability to distinguish hues.
Sounds like a load of bullshit? Well, sit back and relax, because it’s about to get weirder.
This theory is excellently portrayed in George Orwell’s “1984″ - so if you read it in high school, you are now allowed a 5-minute break to put your hands together and thank the High School Reading List Gods for granting you the divine knowledge necessary to read this blogpost.
To those of you who haven’t read it, here’s the plot -
It’s The FUTURE. The government is BAD. They can watch you on your iPads, and your computers, monitor your every move at work and at home. If you do something WRONG that they don’t like, they will GET YA and probably put you in prison where you will be stripped of your humanity for a petty crime, probably viciously physically abused and then cleanly disposed of. Here’s how it’s different from 2016 - they have also trashed Webster’s dictionary and wrote their own dictionary - with LESS WORDS. In fact, they wanna write ANOTHER one, with LESS WORDS. They don’t want a lot of words - the less words, the better. For example, the word “bad”? That’s not a good word. Why is it not good? Because if you can say the word “bad” you can say “our government is bad”. They don’t want you to say that. That sounds… well… not pleasant. Sounds like you could write a book about how “bad” your government is. Sounds like many people would want to read that book. Anyway - they banned the word “bad” and they want you to say “ungood” instead. Why? Because then you’re only focusing on the word ‘good’ and the things that stem from that word. So you probably won’t write a book anymore. Even if you do, your book will suck and no one will read it. It’s safer that way.
The point? Words control how we communicate and, in turn, how we think. According to Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, they control how FAR we can think. You can’t think of how to say “unfair”? You won’t be able to realize that your sister taking your candy and piling it into her halloween bag when you’re not looking is Not Okay.
Except wait. What did you say? You CAN conceptualize that? Small babies can conceptualize things before they have words for them? Screaming toddlers know what “unfair” is before they can say the words “Mom, Big Bro is being a fucking Capitalist and selling the lemonade I made even though we decided to share the profits!”
Hm. This theory might just be ungood.
Anyway, where were we? Ah yes.
Okay, so what’s the WEAK linguistic relativity theory?
Well, it’s basically that theory after some Common Sense came around and beat the shit out of it. It’s kinda bruised, it’s not a bad knee now and it is a lot more timid - but it’s still whining about its beliefs, just… weakly.
Basically, weak relativity states that although languages can’t LIMIT thought and concept, it CAN influence it. One of the commonly explored parts of this is the idea that language is the key to culture. References to other cultures, for example, determine how that culture is viewed. If your language has multiple levels of polite speech, your speakers will be more polite overall - whereas if your language has only one set of referral to everyone regardless of hierarchy, your speakers will have less of a distance between them in terms of power exchange.
Is this true? Does it hold its own in a test?
Weeeell the jury’s still out. They might be taking a long lunch break and arguing endlessly. They might never come back, in fact.
Here’s what I think!
Linguistic relativity tests have gone BEYOND linguistic testing and found that speaks of different languages performed dissimilarly in tests that don’t even INVOLVE language. The point? Maybe there’s something ELSE that they have in common besides language that influences their cognitive differences. This can be any number of things.
Aside from that - we can NOT think and live in a linguistic vacuum anymore. There exist VERY FEW parts of the world untouched by linguistic diversity. Americans, despite boasting the most mono-lingual people, are actually exposed through TONS of languages in daily life whether they like it or not. Japanese speakers know THOUSANDS of English words (albeit, ones that are only pseudo-english, given that they have been given a japanese pronunciation and oftentimes their own new meaning). Testing how much our language influences us is kind of a herding-cats problem. WHICH language? What parts of it? How do we separate these influences from OTHER influences - like social, economic and educational influences?
Is the theory complete bullshit? Well, yes and no.
Our language CAN and DOES influence our thought. But language is not ever presented in a neutral manner. Tone, cultural context and social context matter. The n-word and how extremely taboo it is did not become taboo through phonological means. It did not become taboo because combining those 6 letters somehow magically changed it. It became taboo because of how people used it, because of the way they used it, because of historical context and etc, which can NOT be separated from any discussion involving that word.
If you travel to other countries, you might find yourself hearing this same word - and it will have none of the influence that it does in America. It might pass by those people’s ears untouched, and not have a single effect on them. Because it’s a different language? No, because it’s a different history, a different culture, a different social understanding of that set of sounds.
Similarly, language and conceptualization ARE linked in a big way.
Just look at the sexual and gender minority movements - they are FUELED, in part, by the fact that people and groups and communities have been tirelessly coining words and identity labels.
There is no doubt that it is important. Many people feel safer, more ‘real’ under their label than when they had no name for what they felt. The other side of that coin is that people who don’t believe that these labels are “valid” also refuse to use them, and instead use the words they feel are ‘correct’.
One of the most interesting points of it, which has been on my mind lately, is the difference between the LGBTQA+ movements in, say, Japan and America.
America’s LGBTQA circles are expanding at a massive rate. Genderqueer is a word that is widely known and accepted. It even has other words that are becoming well known that are more specific - bigender, genderfluid, agender, etc. These are all different concepts - related, but not the same.
Japan’s LGBTQA vocabulary doesn’t have readily coined terms for these - instead, it utilizes an umbrella-term formula of MtX and FtX - a system taken from transgender markers (which are also commonly used in America to this day; I’m talking about FtM and MtF transition specifies). This system is the most common - and it doesn’t differentiate between an agender and genderfluid individual. Does that mean that if an assigned-female-at-birth genderfluid and agender person were to be born and raised in Japan, they would feel the same about their gender identity, since it would be under the same term of FtX? Or would they feel different, but unable to explain their differences to one another, because they lacked the language to do so?
It’s an interesting concept - but I don’t think there’s a single answer. The research would vary case by case, in, I believe, most experiments.
The point? Linguistic relativity is kinda… well… real. BUT! Only because we MAKE it real. Because a part of our culture is driven by our belief that language is important enough to change a meaningless set of sounds into a powerful cry for peace, or into a slur horrible enough to cause an uprising and protests. Words do control and influence our thoughts - because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be our main mode of communication.
Beyond that? You’ll have to be your own judge. I’m not sure I’ll ever settle on a single answer.