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Does language influence worldview?
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Language influences worldview

The language a person speaks has some effect on their perception of the world such as their ability to identify scents, but it is not wholly responsible. This concept is known as linguistic relativity.


This view is widely known as the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, referring to the theory posited by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 20th century. "Weak" here refers to the high level of influence that language has over cognition as argued by these researchers. In other words, language has some effect on some parts of thought and perception, but it is not solely responsible. The weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was formulated in response to the original "strong" theory.

The Argument

The language a person speaks influences how they think and perceive the world, but this does not mean that language is the only determining factor in a person's worldview. This argument acknowledges that language is incredibly pervasive and that differences between different languages can have meaningful effects on their respective speakers' cognition, but language alone does not solely decide how a person thinks. One commonly cited example of linguistic relativity is that, while there are many languages with grammatical gender (German, Spanish, etc.), these languages do not classify all nouns as the same genders. For instance, the word for "bridge" in German is feminine and masculine in Spanish. But because of this difference in gender classification, a German speaker is more likely to use stereotypically feminine words like "elegant" and "beautiful" to describe a bridge whereas a Spanish speaker tends to use stereotypically masculine ones like "strong."[1] Another example is that while many languages typically express spatial orientation with words like "left" and "right" or "front" and "back," many Australian Aboriginal languages only use the cardinal directions ("north," "south," etc.) In these languages, therefore, the speakers must always conceptualize and describe the location using compass points. The impact of language on perception can also be seen by how the lack of words to describe smells in English impacts English speakers’ ability to recognize different scents. In English, smells are described using comparisons (“It smells like cinnamon”). In Jahai (a language primarily spoken in Malaysia), there are words used solely to describe smells such as “crnir” which describes things that have been roasted. People that speak Jahai have been found to be better at identifying smells than people that speak English.[2] With examples such as these, current linguists largely believe linguistic relativity to be true.[3]

Counter arguments

To argue that language has any effect on cognition is to erase the fact that there are universal principles that govern all languages. For example, children typically acquire their first language(s) in the same stages in the same order, so they learn simple single-syllable utterances before multi-syllable ones, and so on. There are so many language rules common to all--or at least the vast majority of--languages that many researchers support the idea of a universal grammar that all children are born with.[4] But if the language a child learns influences how they think and learn, one would expect to also see variations in how they acquire language based on the specific language(s) they are learning. The other problem with the concept of linguistic relativity is that its proponents situate it as a rejection of Sapir and Whorf's linguistic determinism--because the reality is that these linguists actually rejected the view that language is the only factor that determines worldview. Both Sapir and Whorf actually argued for merely a connection between a person's language and thought processes.[5][6] Proponents of linguistic relativity have therefore misconstrued the beliefs of the two scientists for which the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is named in order to advance their own views.



Rejecting the premises

Further Reading

An article testing the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: Exploring the debate around linguistic relativity: Exploring the debate around linguistic relativity:


This page was last edited on Thursday, 13 Aug 2020 at 21:42 UTC

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