Linguistic Determinism

Linguistic Determinism


So let’s talk about perception. The way
I see the world is going to be different from how you see it, for all kinds of reasons:
my culture, my experiences, my personality and perspective. But what about my language?
Do the words I speak influence the way that I think and interact with the world? It’s
an enticing idea, but we can’t determine that something’s true just because it looks
promising. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is the Ling Space. So the idea that the language you speak shapes
the way that you see the world is really intuitive. After all, if you know the difference between
a guitar and a bass but I don’t, we’re going to have a pretty different way of talking about our favorite
bands. But it’s only in the past couple of hundred years that people have started
to seriously discuss the way one’s language affects one’s worldview. Now, if you know some 19th century European
history, this makes a lot of sense. That period saw a craze of nationalism just sweeping across
the continent, with a lot of borders being drawn and redrawn. What exactly made one community
different from another was an intense topic of debate. People thought that maybe there
was something innate to national characters. And one way that this might manifest itself
is in the languages people spoke. But early linguists like Wilhelm von Humboldt
wanted to ground these philosophical notions in quantifiable scientific ways. Now, this
is an important step in getting to see just how impactful one’s language really is.
The idea that your language shapes how you think was really influential for a while,
but unfortunately, it had some disastrous consequences, and not only in Europe. In fact, some of the most destructive linguistic
policies in America arose from the idea that indigenous language communities should be
replaced by “civilized” European languages. And those policies were really ruinous – according
to the MIT Indigenous Language Initiative, of the roughly 300 Native American languages
that once existed, only 165 remain. And of those, 80% have under 1,000 speakers left. I mean, there are 3 times more Hungarian speakers
in the US than speakers of the most populous Native American language, Navajo. And while
we’re not laying all the blame for this at the feet of ideas linking language to worldview,
they did make a contribution. But for now, let’s put aside how people
have used and abused these concepts, and just take a closer look at the salient scientific
points behind them. The strongest version of this is usually called linguistic
determinism, because it says that the way that we think isn’t just influenced by our
language – it’s totally, 100% determined by it. who pioneered the topic, Edward Sapir and
Benjamin Lee Whorf. Now, this idea raises some interesting questions: Like, if words shape
how you see the world, can there be anything resembling accurate translation between languages?
Or, if you speak more than one language, is your worldview significantly different between them? But let’s leave those for now, and start
with some really famous research done in the 1930s by Whorf. He studied grammatical
structures from Native American languages, and compared them with English and other European
languages. One of the languages he looked at was Hopi, spoken in northern Arizona, and
specifically, how people talk about time in that language. He surveyed Hopi vocabulary and didn’t find
any nouns that had to do with counting time passing. He also analyzed Hopi verbs as not
having tense: so instead of having past, present and future, they had different verb endings
that showed how confident about their statement a speaker was. So that’s really interesting stuff, and
it’s caused a lot of discussion over the decades since then. By now, a greater body
of research has shown that Whorf’s assumptions how Hopi works were mostly mistaken,
but let’s pretend for a minute that they’re correct for Let’s say that Hopi doesn’t encode time.
Then linguistic determinism would say that monolingual speakers of the language would have a significantly
different concept of time from English speakers! They’d actually have to think about and
experience the world differently, because of the language in their minds.
The discussion around this gets pretty heavy, though, so let’s take a look at something more
concrete. Let’s look at, say, colour. Logically, the way your eyeballs and brain
bits see colour should be basically the same whether you live in Toronto or Taipei, or
whether you speak Mandarin or Mongolian. It’s just biology! Right? Well, to a proponent
of linguistic determinism, not right. The words you have for colour should totally influence
which colours you’re able to perceive. There’s actually been a lot of research on
this. It turns out that not every language has the same number of colour terms. Some
languages just have words for black and white! If they have more than two, so like three,
the third term that they’ll add in is for red. Then comes a distinction between cool
colours like blue and warm colours like yellow. Which colours your language has term for
is directly related to how many terms your language has, with the same hues always taking priority. So, we can use the way that different languages
chop up the world of colour to see how language influences perception. If you ask
someone from a language that only breaks the spectrum up into a few pieces pieces to identify a colour that they don’t have a word for, what will they do? Well, linguist Eleanor Rosch wondered about this too,
back in the 1970s. She ran an experiment asking people to match
and organize colours, but she ran it on speakers of Dugum Dani, a language that only has two real words for colours, for light and dark hues. So what happened? People had consistently easier times telling apart so-called “focal colours” than vaguer ones – so ideal
typical blue, rather than wishy-washy bluishness. And then, when she gave taught them some words
to describe some of the colours in her experiment, they still did better with the ones that were focal colours. This strongly suggests that colour perception is universal, and not
influenced by language; for colour at least, our senses tell us more than our words do. So what’s the idea? Is linguistic determinism
on the right track, or should we put it to rest? Well, on the one hand, there’s plenty of
evidence against it, like the colour naming experiments. Or, look at how often it feels
like putting our thoughts into words is just too tricky, and our language just won’t come out
right. If language framed your thoughts rather than the other way around, this wouldn’t happen nearly as much. Plus, people come up with new words all the time, from subspace
to level up. If there wasn’t some word-less part to the thinking process, all this would
be pretty unlikely. Luckily, there’s a way to keep some of the
intuitive logic of linguistic determinism without it controlling your every move. There’s
a lighter version to the theory, which is usually known as Linguistic Relativity. This says that the words you say, the languages you speak, they might not completely
rule your brain but they do come into play when you think about the world. Like, think about “level up” again for
a minute. You know about the idea of levelling up because you know enough about video games,
right? If you’d never heard of video games, you wouldn’t really have that concept
in your head. But you do! So, when you feel you’ve gotten better at something, like
expressing your emotions honestly, you think, “Hey, I leveled up!” Knowing certain words can change the way
you see the world, not to mention how you deal with the people in it. You share a common
ground with the people that you talk with – you all have a bunch of assumptions
and suppositions about the world. So you can tell your friends that you totally levelled
up at playing the drums from all the practicing you’ve been doing, and they’ll know what you mean! So it’s probably true that the words
and rules we have tumbling around inside our heads helps us frame the world. We use words a lot,
both out loud and inside our heads, and so it makes sense that they’d have some influence
over our thoughts. Carrying it to the extremes of that Sapir-Whorf style linguistic determinism
is too strong, and it’s dangerously easy to take that idea too far. But the idea that there’s some influence
of language on your worldview, and vice versa, is a good one. Relatively speaking. So, we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week. If you levelled up your linguistic information, you learned that views linking
language and thought have been very influential, if not always in good ways; that one of these,
linguistic determinism, says that your language determines your worldview; that the strong version
of linguistic determinism has been refuted by later research; and that a weaker version,
linguistic relativity, better matches what we know about language use. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our production
assistant is Georges Coulombe, our music and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics
team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back
over to our website, where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook,
and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And
we’ll see you next Wednesday. Hágoónee’!

Danny Hutson

25 thoughts on “Linguistic Determinism

  1. Wow, that fact about indigenous languages was really sad. ): hopefully people can be proud of their native language now and teach it to their children too.

  2. You should get like two mattresses in a 90-degree angle behind the camera to eat the echoes your microphone is picking up. Image search "mattress vocal booth" on google for other people's makeshift mattress solutions. I really like the videos but it's hard to concentrate because of the room-noise, as somebody who knows anything (albeit, very very little) about sound.

  3. you know what this reminded me of, at least towards the end when you mentioned us talking to ourselves, is the research into behavioral problems with kids with language processing and the hypothesis that they don't have effective self-talk, and that teaching them effective self-talk can decrease their impulsivity and poor behavioral choices.  Don't know if that is really linguistics, though.  🙂

  4. I'd read that native speakers of languages that preferred cardinal directionality ("The ball is north of the couch") to relative directionality ("The ball is behind the couch") had better internal compasses but worse spatial recollection. Then again, the sources weren't scholarly works or anything, so I was wondering if that was something you'd heard of, and if so if you knew whether or not it was actually true. If it is it would be a good piece of evidence in favor of linguistic relativism, but as you mentioned, being interesting isn't the same thing as being true.

  5. Ramona Flowers T-shirt !!! And also this is the first linguistic channel I found and I love it, keep up the amazing work 🙂 greetings from Russia

  6. Blaming the loss of Language on Science/Philosophy is insane. It's like blaming eugenics in it's many manifest forms on Charles Darwin. Or blaming Rutherford for the Nuclear Bomb or Tim Berners-Lee for 4chan. People make choices.

  7. Interesting about the "level up"-part, seeing as the term "game over" started as a kind of broken english way of aying you lost the game, but in this day and age is used as just another expression with hardly anything to do with gaming.

  8. 4:03 First of all, I was a little bit surprised regarding the spelling of the word ‘colour.’ I knew this is an American linguistic show, recorded in the USA and led by an American born person. This, I expected the preferred spelling to be ‘color.’

    Second, I wanted to give some further examples of this. In English and Swedish, amongst other languages, blue and light blue (blå and ljusblå in Swedish) are regarded as two shades of the colour blue, but in Russian, they are regarded as different colours and thus, there are two names for them: си́ний [ˈsʲinʲɪj] for (deep) blue and голубо́й [ɡəlʊˈboj] for light blue.

    Sometimes, in English, we tend to think of the colour orange as the colour of oranges (because of the name similarities) but this is not true to the same extent in the other languages I speak: apelsin (sv), Apfelsine/Orange (de), апельси́н [ɐpʲɪlʲˈsʲin] (ru), portakal for the fruit orange and orange/brandgul (sv), orange (de), ора́нжевый [ɐˈranʐɨvɨj] (ru) and turuncu (tr) for the colour. Also, the Turkish word for brown is kahve|rengi which literally means ‘coffee colour’ (kahve meaning ‘coffee’ and renk meaning ‘colour’).

    By the way, which languages only distinguish between black and white? How do painters manage to have a conversation in between in such a language? Do they use other languages such as English and French as an axillary language to express such concepts?

    Thank you very much for making these video! They are really fun to watch and you really learn from them. You chose really interesting topics to talk about. ☺

  9. Hmmm. Interesting. I can definitely attest to the fact that when I learned English, my thinking grew even more different from my parents'. But that might have been due to massively increased information access.

  10. As someone who uses 5 languages frequently at almost native (C1 or C2) levels, to the point of really not being able to tell what my real mother language (out of the 4 I have used since I was a kid) is, I must say that mindset changes drastically. There are many things that can be approximated in translation, but definitely there are words like "Schadenfreude" "Saudade" or "Тоска", that are not that easy to convey, and it's something that goes across all languages. Also idioms and word combinations that make no sense in other languages have a meaning that simply can't be conveyed that easily. That's why humor is so different. Also, I'd like to add that just by speaking the same language but in a different accents and expressions already makes mindsets different.

  11. Im sorry, i just started this video, (maybe like 1:20 in) with the complete intention of learning as much as i can from what he has to say but i cant get over the fact that his head tilts to his left and ends up tilting on his right before he decides to start another sentence… small thing but i couldn't stop staring…

  12. I find the idea of linguistic determinism (and some strong versions of ling. relativity) quite dangerous. A linguist was teaching in class that the Hopi can't have abstract thoughts! That's insane, and a potential source of discrimination.

  13. why don't they say uped a level, as "went up a level "? : "level up" to level up, as in to make something become level. This is where idioms become gibberish.

  14. The idea that Klingons are aggressive because the Klingon language is aggressive is known as the Sapir-Worf hypothesis.

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