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The Fascinating Relationship of Language and Perception

NPR posted an article yesterday that talks about the idea that language shapes the way we think.  Lera Boroditsky, a psychologist at UCSD, argues that language affects the way we process our surroundings and how we perceive and remember.  John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, says these differences in language exist, but they actually reflect our culture and worldview rather than shape or limit it.

This debate is not new to the field of linguistics; it’s been on-going for roughly a century.  The ideas proposed by both Boroditsky and McWhorter connect to debates and ideas by Boas, Sapir, Whorf, de Saussure, Voloshinov, Durkheim, and those are just the early and best-read theorists.  In a sense, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question – does culture shape language or does language shape culture?

I won’t begin to argue one way or the other.  While I do have a master’s degree in anthropology, I don’t feel that I have enough knowledge to argue a side here.  What I will do, though, is clarify what I believe each side is trying to say, particularly since it gets simplified in the NPR article (probably due to space constraints).

Boroditsky, according to the article, seems to be of the opinion that language shapes our perception of the world and, therefore, our behaviour.  This argument goes right back to Sapir and Whorf, and I summarise it in the linked articles.  McWhorter, on the other hand, argues that differences in language stem from differences in culture, and that our culture and behaviour therefore shape the way we express ourselves rather than the other way round.  This idea is closer to those proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure and, to a degree, Emile Durkheim.

I believe Boroditsky is arguing for linguistic relativity, that differences in language may affect the way we perceive our surroundings, rather than linguistic determinism, which argues that language shapes perception and behaviour.  I also believe that while McWhorter argues the opposite, he does not deny that there are differences in expressed perception and behaviour between different cultural groups.

Yet, there is an important point that McWhorter makes which is highly important to this debate.  He is quoted in the NPR article that “Nothing has ever demonstrated that your language makes you process life in a different way. It just doesn’t work.”  This may seem stark, but the description of his forthcoming book The Language Hoax provides more of an explanation.  “The fact that a language has only one word for eat, drink, and smoke doesn’t mean its speakers don’t process the difference between food and beverage, and those who use the same word for blue and green perceive those two colors just as vividly as others do,” (taken from the book description).  McWhorter is getting at something akin to Whorf’s notions of habitual thought (which ultimately connects to a whole other set of theories).

Let’s say your language has four words for color: white, black, red, and yellow.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t perceive the differences noted in languages with words for blue, green, purple, etc.  It doesn’t even mean that you don’t perceive the difference between blue or green or purple.  Instead, it means that those differences are not important in your day to day life.  They are not important enough to merit a separate linguistic term.  Otherwise, you would have words for them.  But cognitively, you have the ability to learn new words for those colors and you can certainly perceive them as being different.

Let’s take another example.  Go to your local stationary store and find all of the black ball-point pens.  Are they all the same?  Of course not.  Well, not unless your stationary store has a really small assortment of pens.  ‘Black ball-point pen’ is a fairly specific phrase, and yet we still end up with a lot of different pens.  Can you perceive that those pens are different?  Of course you can.  Are you going to express those differences in language? Only if it’s really important, which is rare if ever.  Just think of the number of times you’ve been in class or a meeting or at home and asked someone for just a pen.  You ask for a pen because color, size, shape, brand, age, thickness, and whatever other differences there might be don’t actually matter; you just need a pen.

McWhorter is arguing that differences in language do not show differences in cognitive ability, they show differences in habitual thought and behavior and societal perception of the importance of those differences.  It’s not that you can’t perceive the difference, it’s that that particular difference isn’t important enough for you to express it linguistically (this is hinted at by Boroditsky, but it isn’t terribly clear where she falls on this issue).  Language is socially determined.  You can can call a pen something else, like pon or nep or kel, but unless other people also use that word for a pen, no one will know what you mean.  Therefore, our language is determined by what we as a society use it for.  We as a society use language for the things we feel are important (as a society), which ultimately comes from our culture.  Therefore, McWhorter argues that culture shapes language.

Do we know who is right?  I certainly don’t.  Personally, I’m one of those people that believe language and culture affect each other to varying degrees.  It’s a two-way street, where behaviour can change our language (think text speak), but our language can also affect our behaviour (see the bit about gasoline drums in my article on Whorf).  To be completely honest, though, I probably fall closer to McWhorter than Borodistky.

There are a lot of other discussions we can get into here on the relationship between language and culture.  The discussion has been going on academically for nearly a century, which means I cannot possibly address everything here.  I hope this clarified the positions a little more, though, and if you’re interested in these theories you should honestly look at McWhorter’s work along with Boas, Sapir, Whorf, and all the others I mention in here.  If you’re really curious, send me a message or a comment and I can point you towards other scholars.  But if you’re fascinated by linguistics, take a course, get into the field, and then you can have all kinds of fun discussing these issues at length!

If you have anything to add or debate or comment on, please feel free to do so in the comment thread!

3 thoughts on “The Fascinating Relationship of Language and Perception

  1. Mark Safford

    Okay, here goes: I guess I am a “biological determinist” when it comes to “language,” which does not exist on its own in the natural world. it is a communal creation by a group of humans so they can communicate better with each other. Thus, “language” works only when the people communicating agree on a common definition for the words being used, so that they can convey thoughts, ideas and emotions which are important to them successfully with each other..

    Each human group – family, clan, tribe, society, nation, etc. – creates its own language, and often other individuals and groups will learn that language, and help to shape it, because they want to communicate with the other people who use it. Sooooo, language reflects the needs and desires of humans to communicate with each other. If those speakers have the need to distinguish red from orange, they will create a word or phrase for each color. If not, they will lump them together under a single word, because the difference between them has no relevance or importance to them.

    Thus, by definition, language must reflect the communal values, needs and desires of the human group that uses it, and continually evolves it so it remains relevant and useful.

    1. Heather Post author

      Hey Mark,

      I think you and I essentially agree on this – if there’s no need for the word ‘blue’, then it won’t exist. If there is a need, society will create a word. I do see the argument that language shapes how you think about the world in that when we encounter something new, we are going to try to classify it in the categories that we have in our language. But if language in itself is derived from communal values (i.e. culture), then our classification of new things is therefore a cultural process as mediated through language. Hmm… I guess that means I am choosing sides…

      1. Mark Safford

        Hah hah hah! And it’s okay to DO that! Only I would say that “the way we think about the world shapes language” and not vice versa. Language, like art and music, is a creation of man, not the other way around! Man evolved biologically in a physical world, but it is his ability to think, and reason, and communicate within that world that creates language and art and music, and culture, and religion . . . etc.

        Oh, and happy 2014 to, lassie!

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