Does Language Really Make You Who You Are?

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The theory of linguistic relativity is one of the most controversial in the history of language study. Its proponents argue that language is not just the means by which ideas are communicated – but language alters ideas themselves. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which introduced linguistic relativity, garnered support during the 1950s – but in subsequent decades, the ideas it discussed were torn down.


Could new evidence bring credibility to this once ridiculed linguistic theory?


Can Language Change How We Experience the World?


Of course, language has an impact on our minds. We learn by our senses. As small children, we experience the world with limited meaning, simply absorbing the information our senses present.


As an example, imagine a baby with a bright green sippy cup, full of water. The baby can see their bright green sippy cup, pick it up, drink from it and hear the sounds the sloshing water makes – but can’t give or associate any words for the colour, the temperature of the water, the sound it makes, or anything else to communicate ideas about the cup. The baby can experience the cup, interact with it and respond to the stimulus with base, fundamental human responses.


Sight, sound and smell – these were all experienced and absorbed by our new minds, but we didn’t attach words or ideas to them. They were stimuli and nothing more. With time, words are attached to those stimuli.


The greenness of the cup gains significance. So does the sound – even if baby gives the sound an onomatopoeic name like “shh shh shh” instead of “sloshing”. As language takes hold, not only does the child’s vocabulary build, but so does their understanding of time and space, to which new words are attached – allowing them to express these ideas and meanings.


Linguistic relativity claims that the language you learn not only gives you the tools to express those ideas and meanings, but actually shapes them. Your language alters you and your perception, your world view – and even the flow of time.


Language Makes Cultures


It’s a fascinating theory, but it was systematically picked apart by some of the greatest minds in linguistic history, including Noam Chomsky himself (whose arguments against the theory are rebutted here). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is named after Benjamin Lee Whorf and his mentor, Edward Sapir.


Edward Sapir died in 1939, which was a huge blow to Whorf – himself ailing. Whorf began to write prolifically on the subject in his final years, dedicating much of his work to his mentor.


Perhaps it was the somewhat hurried nature of his work that drew criticism – after all, he was unable to develop his ideas or respond to critics. His ideas only took hold decades after his death in 1941.


In his paper titled Science and Linguistics, Whorf details differences in English and Hopi language, spending a significant portion of his efforts dismantling how time is recorded, communicated and experienced differently because of the language itself.


Due to the time-bending nature of language, he felt his theories were aligned with Einstein’s theory of relativity – giving rise to the name “linguistic relativity”.


But with only one example of a near-extinct language, Whorf’s links between language and the experience of time were seen as tenuous at best.


New Linguistic Evidence?


It would take 70 years for new evidence in support of Whorf’s claims to surface. In 2010, a study of Aboriginal language made a previously undocumented discovery. A remote community in Australia, the Pormpuraawans communicate the flow of time in a strikingly different manner to anywhere else in the world – demonstrating not only that the concept of time itself is different, but that it is experienced differently (and so communicated differently) from person to person.


In Pormpuraawan language, the flow of time is arranged by cardinal directions (north, south, east and west).


Specifically, time flows from left to right when one is facing south, from right to left when one is facing north, toward the body when one is facing east, and away from the body when one is facing west.


This relationship with time is personal to the one experiencing it. The linguistic concept of time is independent of the body, not an internal clock or construct of the mind.


It’s all quite amazing – and while Whorf’s ideas seem to have been ridiculed in the past, maybe it’s time his work was revisited.


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