TEDxAUCollege | The intriguing interplay between language and thinking
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The intriguing interplay between language and thinking

Ru Khan

Have you ever taken a moment to reflect on how the language you use to communicate and narrate structures your pattern of thought and consequently influences your behaviour? It may take a moment to fully sink in and those who are in-the-know may not necessarily believe you, however, the theory that language constructs lived reality has been around since the early 20th century.

In the 1930s, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf conducted a study on the Native American Hopi tribe’s language structure. What he found was that the lack of past, present, and future tenses in the indigenous language affected the Hopi people’s perception of time–nothing is fixed and everything is an ongoing process. Whorf’s studies, coupled with his mentor’s, Edward Sapir, are called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as Linguistic Relativity or Linguistic Determinism.

This hypothesis grapples with the concept that human behaviour and thought processes are shaped by language structure and vocabulary. For example, Whorf built his theory with speculations about the Inuit lexicon for snow–counting at most 50 words for snow in all Eskimo dialects and languages collectively. However, Whorf’s theories were met with criticism. Noam Chomsky, another linguist, discredited the idea with his own theory of “universal grammar” in which all languages follow the same grammatical structure.

Despite the criticisms, new studies have shown results in favor of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, including one conducted by economist Keith Chen in which he explores the effect of future tenses on society’s behaviour. Chen is both a Chinese and English speaker and understands the grammatical structure of both languages. Moreover, he’s an economist with an eye for interesting trends: Chen remarked a difference in saving rates among OECD countries. However, the difference among the countries seemed inconsistent and random at first until he considered each country’s language structure.

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Unlike Chinese, English described actions in relation to time: “it rained, it is raining, it will rain” vs. “it rain yesterday, it rain now, it rain tomorrow”. This identifies English as a “futured” language and Chinese as a “futureless” language. What Chen’s study concludes is that futureless language speakers tend to save more money than English speakers. In addition, futureless language speakers are more likely to engage in protected sex, smoke less, and less prone to obesity. One reason for that is the English speakers’ perception of the future: the future is more distant from the present and less of a reality, and therefore there is less incentive to engage in constructive behaviour presently in order to provide for a brighter future. Chen explains it all in his TEDtalk: if you’re interested, you can watch it here.

People have speculated about numerous possible ways in which language may affect behaviours and perceptions, such as relationships within family. In some languages, introducing one’s aunt would involve indicating whether they’re from the father’s side or the mother’s side, and whether they’re older or younger than said parent. In certain cultures, such as the Namibian Himba tribe, there is a limited vocabulary for colour. Accordingly, members of this tribe experience problems with identifying colours and differentiating between them. Other languages have different pronouns that can be interchanged depending on the level of respect one wants to address their peers with–perhaps establishing a greater social hierarchy (for example: Japanese honorifics). Still, much doubt over the the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is expressed to this day, though it is an intriguing concept.

What do you think? Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis plausible? If you do think so–in what ways do you think your native tongue affects the way you think and behave?