I have been thinking for some days of an interesting topic to talk about in the blog, and I thought that a good way to start would be with a small demonstration of the extent to which our language shapes the world we live in.
This is a very interesting topic and we could say a lot of things about it. In fact, I have tried to summarize the most important points discussed about this idea, but even so, it is a little long for just one post so I have divided it to make the reading easier. I hope you like it and find it interesting.
So… here we go!
Could language influence to the extent of, for example, make us perceive colours in a different way like the peacock in the image? This is a subject that for centuries has awaken the curiosity of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists or any person interested on languages. And it seems that with the new technological advances permitting more scientific and rigourous tests, we are nearer to understand the language neurological mechanisms.
To better understand what this question has represented on the history of linguistic studies, we have to go back to the beginning of the XIX century, to the life of the German linguist, philosopher and diplomatic Wilhelm von Humboldt.
In 1799, sir Humboldt travelled to Spain, where he was factinated by the Basque language and culture. It was precisely the Basque language which attracted his attention, a language that although was European it was very different from the rest of the languages of the continent. Upon his return, he dedicated himself to research on the Basque people, their culture and their “strange” language, coming back a time after to these lands in order to study the language firsthand. Little by little he realized that the Basque language was, both in its vocabulary and structure, completely different to what he had previously thought as “natural” due to his philological studies.
When he was concious that languages could be much more diverse between them than what he had always imagined, he began to study other languages, the remoter the better, specializing himself in the Amerindian languages, whose study led him to affirm that “The difference between languages was not only on the sounds and signs, but also on the vision of the world.” and conclued that “Thinking depends non only on language in general, but also to a certain extent on the language of each individual”.
After these Humboldt’s thoughts, other thinkers began to get interested on the influence that language could have on thought. In 1873, the philology proffesor in Oxford University Max Müller explains that “the words we use to think are canals of thought not excavated by us, but rather found already built” refering to how our ancestor’s knowledge and vision of the world arrives to us thanks to language.
In this sense, the mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford, adds years later that “what makes nature what it is for us is the thought of earlier humanity embedded in our language.”
In spite of this new interest on the influence of the native language in our perception, it was not until a century after when all these ideas arrived to Edward Sapir, another linguist to whom one day the anthropologist Franz Boas had made to see the light about linguistic diversity, dismantling all the generalizations about the structure of the languages that Sapir had learnt in his studies of germanic philology.
His subsequent research in strange and exotic grammars led him to settle the basis of what would be called “Linguistic Relativism> proposing several examples of different experiences of the world according to language.
But it was his disciple Benjamin Lee Whorf who, already in the 1940s, dared to arrive farther stating that “each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions […] We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.”
These ideas has been afterwards know as the famous “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” o Linguistic Relativity Principle.