Saying The Unthinkable

The idea that the language people speak controls their thinking is a recurring theme in intellectual life. Do society and culture create language experiences, or does the creation of language dictate society and cultural experience? Amanda steps into the world of linguistic relativity, armed with plenty of research and a healthy dose of common sense.

In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’ – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Anybody who has read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will remember that the government in this novel has such faith in the power of language that it assumes political dissent will be eliminated if it removes all of the offending words. It’s a tantalising idea and Orwell’s book continues to have deep political influence. But while language is powerful, it isn’t a prison. It might well be a political weapon, but we are not trapped by language. The beauty of language is in its flexibility.

I recall learning, in high school, of a language that had the same word for grey and brown. The language we were discussing escapes me now, but I do remember wondering at the time if the native speakers of that particular language could actually differentiate between the colours. If there isn’t a word for something, does it still exist?

If there isn’t a word for something, does it still exist?

The idea that the language people speak controls their thinking is a recurring theme in intellectual life. Pinker says it best, ‘we all know when drawing on common sense that thought can’t be pushed about by words, (but) many people hold the opposite belief when they intellectualize.’ Whilst writing The Stuff of Thought, he had to stop telling people that the book was about ‘language and thought’ as the only relation between the two that people could see was how language shaped thought. Language must, of course, in some way affect thought. If somebody’s words didn’t affect another person’s thoughts, what would be the point of communicating? But there is far more to it than the shaping.

Anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf believed there to be a causal relationship between language and thought—much of Whorf’s work examined the relationship between the two. The subsequent theories formed what is referred to as linguistic relativity, a controversial area of linguistics.

Linguistic relativity contains two hypotheses that can be summed up in the following way: The native speakers of two structurally different languages will also have different thought processes. This is the ‘weaker’ of the two hypotheses. The second is that the world-view of a person will be strongly influenced or determined by the structure of their native language. This second hypothesis is often referred to as linguistic determinism, or sometimes the ‘strong’ form of linguistic relativity. In order to keep things simple, I’ll refer to it as determinism and the ‘weak’ form as relativity.1

Though Sapir is the one who stated that ‘we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation,’ it was Whorf who introduced anthropologists, linguists and psychologists to the principle of relativity, explaining that the grammar of a language creates different realities for its users. That is, speakers are not led to the same picture of their universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar.

If determinism seems a little far-fetched, relativity does have some merit. It’s something of a chicken-or-egg scenario though. Do society and culture create language experiences, or does the creation of language dictate society and cultural experience? Hardin and Banaji explain relativity by using Whorf’s example of the Aztec language only having a single base term that incorporates the English words cold, snow, and ice. The absence of distinction between these terms, according to Whorf, correlates with the insignificance of cold weather in Mexico. A more familiar example is the widespread misconception that there is an Inuit language with 40 separate words for snow. In fact, the language uses suffixes to express concepts that would be described in English by compound words or sentences, and the number of ‘words’ for ‘snow’ in both languages is about the same. I mention this, because it is a ‘fact’ that has been repeated to me so many times that I think it must be one of the few things people remember learning in high school (I certainly remember learning it), and also because it can be indirectly attributed to Whorf, who, in a 1940 article, referenced Eskimo languages having three words for snow. Since that article the figure has inflated though the actual number of words hasn’t.

Most of the research done (particularly from the 1970s onwards) on the hypothesis concerned the domain of colour, where studies sought to describe and compare the ranges of colour terms of different languages. Any study of colour terms across languages shows that people name colours according to the conventions of their language. Rosch, in 1973, showed that the Dani can readily distinguish between all of the colours that have distinct names in English, despite only having two colour terms. However, it is not as easy for Dani speakers as it is for English speakers—they compare the colour with something in the environment e.g. the colour of the sky. It seems as though Dani speakers have not felt a need to make reference to all the colours of English speakers, leading to the conclusions that despite the sensory data in the colour spectrum being the same for all human beings, languages name it differently.

It is hardly true that the language we happen to speak actually limits the concepts we are able to understand

Whorf controversially claimed that there are cognitive differences observed in linguistic communities caused by language. Referring to the earlier Aztec example, because the English lexicon differentiates between ice and snow, English speakers see a greater difference between them than Aztec speakers. The idea behind this is that thought consists of actual words and sentences in the language of the speaker, and people cannot conceive of a concept that lacks a name in their language. Yet, it is hardly true that the language we happen to speak actually limits the concepts we are able to understand. Deutscher compares Germans and English speakers and asks whether unfortunate folk who have never heard of Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or do Germans, whose language uses wenn for both ‘when’ and ‘if’ fail to understand the logical difference between what might happen under certain conditions and what will happen regardless? Furthermore, in Hebrew, the word for ‘show’ is cause-to-see and the word for ‘bring’ is cause-to-come, but nobody could suggest that the concept of ‘bringing’ is innate in Americans but learned in Israelis. As Ray Harlow put it, it’s like saying, ‘Computers were not discussed in Old English; therefore computers cannot be discussed in Modern English.’

And what happens when you bring feelings and emotions in the equation? Here I am not speaking about the feelings the people have towards language, but of those times you can’t put into words that which you are feeling. There may not be a name for it, or perhaps it just isn’t a word you know, yet the feeling is as palpable as it would be if you could categorically state ‘I have the feeling of x.’ You could use a metaphor to make yourself understood, or another word. Context goes a very long way in helping somebody understand what you are trying to say when language is failing you. Think of that wordless look that you share with somebody, knowing that both of you desire to initiate something, but both are reluctant to start. If you were explaining this feeling to a speaker of Yagan (an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego), they would tell you that they have a word for it—Mamihlapinatapei. There is no equivalent of this word in English, but that doesn’t make the feeling exclusive to Yagan speakers.

It is the meaning that matters, and as long as ideas can be expressed, humans will be able to communicate. The ability to learn a language may be innate, but languages and behaviours are learned, and as we learn a language we learn the things we can and cannot say. We learn that we don’t always say what we mean, that we don’t always think before speaking, and that we can think thoughts that should not be said out loud. Let’s return to the example of Big Brother and 1984, in which the language is provided (and enforced) by the state. Newspeak is essentially a language used in order to avoid thoughtcrime, that is, insubordination through thought. The Party uses Newspeak to remove English (Oldspeak) words from the vocabulary, particularly those referring to ideas such as freedom and rebellion (the idea being that if people have no words for these concepts, they cannot think them). Language becomes perfunctory, Oldspeak becomes obsolete and thoughts of anything other than love for Big Brother, and how to serve the party, become taboo.

Taboo does not refer solely to political crime inside one’s head. All cultures have taboo terms, usually related to swearing, sexuality, bodily functions, death, sexism, racism, ageism (all manner of -isms in fact) and others. Taboo topics are those that make us uncomfortable, and that those who are ‘well-bred’ don’t discuss at the dinner table. We have ways around these topics, when they simply cannot be avoided (or when we simply want to shake things up), by using metaphor, euphemisms or dysphemisms. Taboo terms are likely to be used in times of heightened emotion, and so speaking them out loud is a kind of emotional release. Think of stubbing your toe and then swearing as soon as the pain has registered. I don’t know if it actually helps with pain management, but it certainly feels like it does in the moment.

A euphemism is used as an alternative to a taboo or negative expression, in order to avoid possible loss of face: either one’s own face or, through giving offense, that of the audience or some third party. A dysphemism is an expression with connotations offensive to the audience, and is substituted for a neutral or euphemistic expression for that very reason. An example of this is the expression carking it for the euphemistic passing away or neutral dying. The default mode of naming and addressing is euphemistic, though this is not always true. Sarcasm in naming and terms of address is dysphemistic, no matter the style of speech, and can be used to display aggression or anger. Taboos make quite good dysphemisms, actually, and therefore make good expletives, epithets and insults, for those particularly looking to ruffle feathers!

A minor taboo, and a real-world example of the idea that changing language will change thoughts is the change from discriminatory language. By this I refer to the idea that if we substitute police officer for policeman, or fire fighter for fireman we will come to recognize equality amongst men and women in these roles. The idea is not dissimilar to the Newspeak idea, though this is an adjustment of terms rather than a removal of them and I am not actually suggesting that a lack of discriminatory language will send us all into a dystopian tailspin.

Earlier on I mentioned Steven Pinker and his comment that when we are using common sense we are aware that language isn’t dictated by thought, but that things might seem different when we intellectualize. It is not just about language and thought, though. It’s about context, and society, and culture, and personality. There are things that you wouldn’t even dream of saying to your grandmother, that you would say to your friends without a thought. It’s not so simple as this theory or that theory. Of course language affects thought, but that doesn’t mean it determines it. We don’t have little robotic minds that are programmed with a finite number of set responses for certain situations. On the contrary, what we have is an infinite number of ways to express things for which we may not have individual word. Surely there is freedom, and a certain beauty, in that. ◾


1 Sapir and Whorf did not actually work together on this hypothesis. It is also sometimes referred to as Whorfianism, as Whorf was the primary proponent of relativity. It was Whorf’s student Harry Hoijer who coinced the term ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.’ Whorf denied that there were strong and weak forms of the hypothesis, but it is popularly defined as having two hypotheses, as I’ve presented here.



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