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Social Saturdays’ posts look at the social side of language. After all, language isn’t just a way to communicate, it is communication.

The obviously overbearing view of language is that it is something humans use to communicate.

This might seem slightly obvious.

As humans, we control language and we use our knowledge of it and our vocabulary to communicate.

There is one theory, however, which claims otherwise.

Those of you who are familiar with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will be aware of Newspeak. The concept of Newspeak is that in a language with no word to express freedom or individuality, amongst other things, there is no concept of it. In this way, the totalitarian government prevents thoughtcrime: thinking things which go against the government.

Cover of "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is similar to this idea: rather than the speaker controlling language, it controls them.

The hypothesis is named after the two linguists who coined it; Edward Sapir and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf. Their idea was that our experience of the world is constructed around language, and that no two speech communities are alike in their views of the world  because the languages they experience it through are different.

For example, we often hear cited that Inuits have over four hundred words for snow. This means they have words to describe it in many different states of fluffiness or thickness…

Now, this is actually a gross exaggeration of the fact; they have a number of words for snow but nowhere near four hundred.

However, the Scots language has a lot of words for rain or rainy weather. In an environment where a certain thing is spoken about more so than it is elsewhere, there is more need for words to describe this thing. Does any type of English other than Scots have a word for ‘cold, unpleasant, dreary and overcast weather with light rain or spit’? Without the vocabulary to describe this weather, does a non-Scots speaker have the same experience of this weather? (The word, by the way, is dreich).

The vocabulary of the English Language has grown massively as it has developed, and is still growing. This is because we create or borrow words to describe new ideas and concepts we want to talk about.

Before we took the word from the French, did we experience déjà vu differently?

John Lucy studied Language Relativity – which is another term for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – by comparing certain semantic domains across a number of languages. Spatial categories and colour classifications make up a large part of this research.

Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian language uses the points of a compass to describe things in relation to one another. So, instead of saying, “behind the school”, speakers of this language would say “to the East of the school”. Instead of saying “my left hand”, they would say “my Northern hand”. Research has shown that Guugu Yimithirr speakers are better at finding and describing locations than English speakers, while English speakers are better at tasks such as instructing someone as to how to set a table.

What I find the most interesting evidence towards this theory is gender in language.

English only has one gender, but most languages in Europe have two or three. The word key is feminine in Spanish and is masculine in German, while the word for
bridge is masculine in Spanish and feminine in German.

Boroditzky used this difference to study the effect of gender on our experience of the word. He asked bilingual English-Spanish and English German speakers of each language to describe a key and a bridge, along with other words which are feminine in one language and masculine in the other

They found that the English-Spanish speakers used stereotypically feminine words to describe a key: delicate, fragile, and so on. Meanwhile, the English-German speakers used words like heavy, useful, and big. When asked to describe a bridge, the exact opposite occurred: stereotypically masculine words were used by the English-Spanish speakers, while the English-German speakers used stereotypically masculine words.

It begs the question: does our language shape the way we think about things? Do German and Spanish speakers experience the same bridge or the same key in different ways?

I was recently pointed towards an article on a similar idea, which proposed that Latvian speakers are more frugal because the language doesn’t have a future tense. ‘future actions “feel” less distant, making speakers “more willing to save for a future which appears closer”‘. Of course, English doesn’t have a future tense either (simply the present tense and a verb of movement or a future marker such as tomorrow: I am going to; I’m reading a book tomorrow and one or two words allocated to the present such as will and shall), so as an English speaker it’s hard for me to compare, but it’s an intriguing field of study.

Obviously, all the studies I’ve mentioned here do not prove the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Most linguists nowadays are of the opinion that language does not dictate thought: it simply has a very small effect on it.

What do you think?