Does language affect our perception of the world? To answer this question, we’re going to have a closer look at the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf authored a theory on linguistic relativism. The theory purports language can affect our perception and understanding of the world us to varying degrees.
According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the differences between languages—namely, vocabulary, the manner of expressing concepts, narration, and grammar—can shape both our perception of reality and the way we pay attention to specific phenomena.
Let’s take a quick look at the theory and how it’s evolved.
How does language affect thinking?
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed in the late 1920s. It suggests the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience.
A perfect example is how individual nations describe snow.
In Polish, for instance, snow can be wet, loose, or dry. The repertoire of descriptors is limited. In the Finnish-speaking area of Lapland, famous for its harsh weather conditions and especially cold and long winters, there are two hundred terms to describe snow.
References to time and reality can also differ significantly.
Research conducted by Whorf among indigenous tribes of Indians from the US state of Arizona uncovered the members of the tribe do not use words that define time.
In their language, they do not have grammatical structures that would indicate whether the activity took place in the past or will only take place in the future.
Evolution of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Studies on language relativism continued to fascinate people through the 1940s and 1950s.
During that time, there appeared a more variation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. They assumed speech, and precisely the vocabulary and structure of the language, shapes someone’s whole worldview.
Today, however, it is rejected by most linguists, and its popularity eroded in the mid-1980s.
Researchers began focusing on a universalist approach and tried to discover more general principles of language for all cultures.
The Creation of Logical Language
The result of such research is Lojban, a constructed, syntactically unambiguous human language created by the Logical Language Group in 1987.
One of many created languages over the centuries, Lojban’s main purpose is to remove any language ambiguities.
The idea is that everyone who speaks in the Lojban language speaks in a logical and culturally neutral way, without the risk that words or statements will be misinterpreted.
The spelling is phonetic and mastering the Lojban language is relatively simple. It consists of a total of 1,300 base words that are easy to combine.
At the same time, it is complex enough to be used for scientific, creative, or practical activities as well as for communication with computers.
Language Relativism vs. Translation
Universalistic and relativistic approaches to language don’t seem to be in opposition anymore.
It cannot be denied that people speaking different languages, living in separate cultures, may perceive the same phenomena differently. Additionally, if language was the deciding factor in how we perceive the world, it would be impossible to translate content from A to B.
Linguistics and language research require understanding of subtle differences, influences, and nuances.
It’s a field that is constantly developing and facilitating barrier elimination in international communication. In addition to translation, localization also plays a crucial role since language is never black and white.
To accurately maintain the consistency of the message, you need to consider a speaker’s country of origin, culture, environment, and many other aspects that go further than simple, literal translations.
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