Originally Published April 21, 2009

I was poking around the interwebs the other day* and came across the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It was just kind of lying there, and there was no one else around, so I decided to pick it up. Normally, I only pick up things that are shiny, but this one called out to me for some reason. I think it was the name; if it were a disease, it would be something obscure and terminal.

Anyway, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis postulates that a person’s thoughts are influenced by the particular language spoken by that individual, and that different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. The Hypothesis therefore combines two principles: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. In its strongest formulation, the Hypothesis can be understood as claiming that language determines thought; in its weakest formulation, that language partially influences thought. The Hypothesis has been the subject of intense debate among linguists for years. Since the 1960s, it has been heavily challenged by linguistic theories that focus on the universality of language. Following the work of Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker has written extensively on the innateness and universality of language, noting in his 1995 book The Language Instinct:

“Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently.”

Similarly, in The Stuff of Thought, Pinker argued that “children must be equipped with an innate universal grammar; a set of plans for the grammatical machinery that powers all human languages”. Moreover, it is not just syntax that is hard-wired into our brains; we also come equipped with innate “primal concepts” – such as cause, motion, space and time – and these, rather than particular words, form the elementary building blocks of language and thought. As Pinker puts it: “[i]f meanings could be freely reinterpreted in context, language would be a wet noodle and not up to the job of forcing new ideas into the minds of listeners.” To theorists like Pinker, thought is entirely independent of language.

While I’m loath to enter this particular theoretical fray, I have to admit that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has a certain intuitive appeal to me. It’s not that I disagree entirely with people like Pinker; I’m just not convinced that language and thought are entirely divorced from each other. Let me explain.

I am bilingual.* Until the age of 12, I grew up speaking one language exclusively; after that, as a result of a geographical displacement, I started to speak English, which I now consider my primary language. I am still able to understand and converse in my mother tongue, but the effects of non-use are apparent when I speak. None of this is particular unusual. I know several people who have a similar linguistic history, and in many ways our experiences are very similar. But recently I discovered something new in talking with one of my friends on the subject of language. Although he is perfectly fluent in English and uses it to communicate at least 90% of the time, he continues to think in his mother tongue. Certain things, like numbers, he continues to translate into English every time he needs to use them. This struck me as very curious, given that we both underwent our linguistic conversion around the same age. Because here’s the thing; some time in my early teens, I switched from thinking in my mother tongue to thinking in English. I dream in English. I have, for lack of a better phrase, a new mother tongue. At some level, every time I speak in the other language, I have to undertake a process of translation. But in doing that, I’m not in the same position as, say, your average native English speaker who has been asked to translate a speech into French – a language in which he is fluent, but which is not his mother tongue. I am translating from one mother tongue (the one I know best, though it’s not the original) to another mother tongue (my original one, though it’s the one I am currently less familiar with). In that process, I am aware of shifts in nuances of meaning that are taking place notwithstanding the fact that I am striving to give a close literal translation. Trippy!

Anyway, the point I’m trying to get to is that my experiences with different languages have given me a certain perspective on linguistic relativity. In many circumstances, a meaningful literal translation between two language is impossible, the nuances of meaning being lost even if literalness is more or less intact. Sometimes it’s because there no exact equivalent word exists. Take Schadenfreude for example. Sometimes it’s because a literal translation makes little or no sense. Swears are a good example of that. But what does that say for linguistic determinism? Who’s the chicken and who’s the egg: language or thought? One might expect that different cultures would have different histories, different experiences and values, which are expressed and communicated by people within that culture, creating a certain vocabulary in the process. That cultural baggage, if you will, is then passed on to new generations; language is its mode of transmission. So, in a sense, language does influence thought. From an early age, you might be inclined to think about an idea in a way that is, at least partially, dictated by the terms you are taught to use in relation to it. But those terms did not arise in a vacuum; language was created by people in the first place. And language is never static (neither is the content of cultural baggage).

Leaving strictly linguistic theories aside, what has interested me for a long time is the idea that each person has, at a certain level, his or her own personal vocabulary. The words that make up that vocabulary may be the exact same as those of another person speaking the same language, but the meaning of those words – their history – is different. What we call “mis-communication” is often simply an instance of two personal vocabularies failing to match up. Have you ever found yourself witnessing a conversation between two friends you know well – better, perhaps, than each of them knows the other – which suddenly takes a wrong turn. Friend A makes a comment which, to him (and you, as the person who knows him well enough to understand what he’s trying to say), sounds perfectly innocuous. Friend B does not take it kindly. A and B are about to embark on a quarrel, until you step in to explain (translate) to B what A was saying. You heard the exact same conversation that A and B did, the only difference being that you knew (i) what message A was trying to convey by his words, and (ii) what message B actually heard. Sometimes, especially during my more heated interactions with friends and family, I wish someone like that was around to help us negotiate the trickier passes of our conversation.

Someone else wrote about personal vocabularies – and, in turn, the dictionary of misunderstood words that each relationship can generate – much better than I can* … so I’ll leave you with that:

“While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs … but if they meet when they are older … their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.”

* I was looking for a cogent definition of ‘post-modern relativism’. Can’t say I found it, but the quest took me down a rabbit hole of increasingly improbable terms. Post-positivist. Post-structuralist. Social constructivist. I am reminded, at times like these, why I hate philosophers.

* With some marginal knowledge of one or two other languages.

* Generally speaking, Kundera wrote about everything much better than I can.


10 Comments on Blast from the Past: A Galaxy Of Lexicons

  1. My comment is not sophisticated. I just wanted to mention that my dreams are mostly in my mother language, but sometimes English too. Strange. I am also fluent in 3 other languages (bragging…) but my dreams never include those.

  2. This is really fascinating! I speak only English (with a marginal knowledge of Spanish/Spanglish), but the whole thinking in another language has been something I’ve wondered about for a long time. I knew an older Chinese woman who was in grad. school for an English degree, and we talked a lot about how she managed speaking a language that was not her mother tongue. She actually wrote essays completely in Chinese and then took the time to translate them and make sure they made sense in English. Obviously she didn’t/couldn’t make the leap to thinking (at least critically) in another language, and I’m guessing that has to do with the age at which she learned English. Annnnd yet she got a PhD in ENGLISH! Crazy! Anyway, I loved this post. #adinawritesessays 🙂

    • Wow, that is seriously impressive! I don’t think I could be very articulate (well, even to the middling degree I am now) if I had to go through that kind of translation process every time.

      And, LOL – maybe I need to actually make an effort to get writing again. Thanks, lady!

  3. I love this! I’m currently learning about linguistic theory through metaphor theory: do metaphors express our underlying cognitive maps (Lakoff) or do they actually create new meaning (Ricoeur). Fascinating stuff, but so hard to take a side.

    • I know! And I end up feeling so dumb, because I can’t square it all for myself and I just waffle all over the place. But, as frustrating as it is not to feel like you can grasp a definitive answer, it’s so fascinating.
      Thanks for reading 🙂

  4. Loved this post. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of language influencing cognition. I read this book titled Spoken Here that talks about how small regional languages are dying and how he believed that loss erodes the associated cultures and their value systems.

    Something that stuck with me was the author’s assertion that sentence structure would impact thought. His example was to compare a First Nations language (don’t recall which one) with English. He said that the First Nations language he was referring to placed the context first, then action, then actor while English did the opposite. So ‘I saw the mountains’ would have been roughly ‘The mountains, seeing, was I’. I’m sure the language developed around their values to begin with, but now that the langauge exists, I can’t help but believe that its syntax would shape the thought process of people that use it today. Nerdy fun!

    • Totally! I actually think I might have read Spoken Here. I need to go back and check my library. If not, I’m definitely picking it up!

  5. I’d agree with this. The way I think is determined by my mother tongue. It’s why sometimes in French, I still can’t understand how they think because the way they word things makes no sense to me.

    For instance: I miss you is translated as “You will be missing me” .. or something like that. I STILL DON”T GET IT.

    Also, I find people who speak more than two languages perfectly/fluently have an accent in both. No one language is their native unaccented language because they have an accent in each. BF agrees with this.

    • That’s interesting. Most people think I don’t have an accent in English, but I think it’s noticeable on certain words. And I occasionally struggle with certain sounds – “ship” and “sheep” can be tongue-twisters if I have to say them quickly, one after the other.