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Speaking Your Mind

The pernicious persistence of the "language shapes thought" theory

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News

Did you know that thinking in Korean makes you process life differently than thinking in English?

At least that’s the case according to the undying theory that each language shapes thought in its own ways. It has hung around for eight decades now, and keeps popping up in the darndest places. A recent New Yorker article introduces us to a language Ithkuil, created by John Quijada to force us to be explicit about nuance. For instance, English has a word gawk. In Ithkuil you would combine bits and pieces that mean “to look in a fashion processed by others as unexpected and slightly inappropriate.”

The idea is that if we had to say exactly what we meant, communication would be easier—fewer arguments, richer intellectual exchange, and who knows, maybe less war. Along those lines, Berkeley linguist George Lakoff rose to prominence for awhile in the aughts with his idea that Democrats could triumph by changing terms like taxes to membership fees (the rousingly vague “Yes, We Can!” ended up making the more decisive noise). More recently, an excerpt from Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages claiming “our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue” was on The New York Times website’s “most-read” list for weeks. 

Such notions are certainly intriguing, but they’re actually insulting to half the world.

The theory started with amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s, who claimed that the Hopi language has no ways to indicate past or future, and that this is connected to the Hopi’s cyclical sense of time. He meant this as praise, under which the Hopi occupy a “higher plane of thinking” in contrast to the “bludgeon” of a language we English speakers are stuck with.

Since then, much Whorfian work has been dedicated to showing that the languages of groups often thought of as “primitive” give their speakers more sensitivity to life than European languages. Navajo has different words for “to handle” depending on the shape of the object handled, and one experiment suggested that Navajo children are more attuned to shape than white Americans.

It is certainly a mark of enlightenment to understand that all humans are equal and that being a First World Westerner is hardly the only way of being human. However, the “language as thought” idea can seem a tad grisly when we pull the camera back.

The problem is that some languages happen to be more anal about nuance than others. Let’s take a simple sentence: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In English, the sentence marks the past tense, has articles, and marks the plural. The Russian version does even more: no articles, but past tense, plural, plus a special form of created that shows that it only happened once and marking earth as an object.

But in Mandarin Chinese, the sentence is just “Start start God achieve make sky earth.” No endings or articles. No marking of the past or anything else. If language creates thought, the Chinese aren’t exactly quick on the uptake—nor are speakers of countless languages in Southeast Asia and Africa. In Japanese, to say I like Bob you just say, roughly, “Bob likeability,” with no I or anything else. It’s hard to fashion a compliment to the culture from such a thing—upon which realization it becomes attractive to consider that the language you speak does not shape your processing abilities.

This is not to say that Whorfianism has no scientific value: Much current work in the subject does show tiny differences in perception. In English we say “a long time”; Indonesian has “a lot of time.” Shown a lengthening line and a gradually filling jar, English speakers are a little better at indicating how long they watched the line while Indonesian speakers are a little better at indicating how long they watched the jar. 

Neat—but this sort of thing hardly makes living feel different to a person. There is no indication that to be Indonesian is to process time as a liquid or some kind of jam. Beyond this, try to celebrate the Navajo for “feeling” objects more than we do and you’re stuck with dismissing much of the Eastern hemisphere as operating on the mental level of our pets. If French and Spanish speakers with their different words for knowing people as opposed to things are philosophical, then the many New Guinea groups whose languages express eat, drink and smoke with just one word for all three must be gustatorily infantile. Whorfianism appeals to some as a way past ethnocentrism to an appreciation of other cultures. However, properly speaking, it rejects and requires ethnocentrism at the same time.