As Edward Sapir defines it, Language is “A purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.” 1
However, when upwards of 7,000 languages exist all over the world, all with varying vocabularies and structures, are the things we try to communicate to each other being understood as we intended them to be?
Do speakers of English, French, Arabic, and Chinese all end up experiencing and remembering things in different ways because of the differences in the languages they speak?
According to Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf; the language we speak plays a role in determining the way we think about certain things, whether it be time and spatial relations, or the traits we attribute to certain objects.
According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis this implies that people who speak different languages end up encoding different aspects of their daily experiences in order to use their language in the correct way. This suggests that an event can be experienced identically by two individuals who speak different languages, but be encoded in the minds of the two individuals in different ways, remembering different aspects simply due to the differences in the languages that they speak, since each language requires the reader to pay attention to separate things depending on the demands of that language. For instance, if an English speaker and a Spanish speaker were to witness the same incident in which an accident occurred; the English speaker is more likely to remember who caused the accident rather than the fact that it was an accident, whereas a Spanish speaker is more likely to remember that fact that the incident was accidental in nature, and would probably say something along the lines of “the balloon burst” rather than name who unintentionally burst it; However, in English you would usually name the cause by saying “He burst the balloon” even if it was an accident. The Spanish speaker’s memory of the incident would centre around the fact that it was an accident, while the English speaker’s memory would focus more on the person who perpetrated.
This theory also has many connotations regarding the cognition of multilinguals and how they accommodate these differences in the languages they speak. As a bilingual myself, I found myself intrigued by the idea that the way I think can be shaped by the languages I speak, and that both the languages I speak can make me think of things in different ways than other people. Hence, this essay focuses on how speaking different languages leads to different ways of thinking about the world.
The main part
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has two forms. The strong form (linguistic determinism), and the weak form (linguistic relativity). The strong form of the hypothesis states that a language and its structure determines and limits how and what we think about things. The weak form of the hypothesis however, states that language simply influences thought but does not limit it.
Linguistic determinism has been heavily criticised and disproven, since after all, people are still able to think about concepts for which their language doesn’t have the vocabulary.
On the other hand, the weaker form of the hypothesis is more widely accepted, since most linguists can agree that cross-linguistic differences do have some impact on perception and cognition while at the same time not completely restricting them.
Linguistic differences between grammatical and semantic categories forces speakers of those languages to pay attention to different details of the world. If an English speaker were to recount an incident, they would need to mention the tense, however, if a Chinese or Indonesian speaker were to speak the same sentence, they would not need to indicate the tense in which it took place simply because they can’t- since their language does not employ grammatical tense. On the other hand, if the same sentence were to be spoken in either German or French, the speaker would need to mention the gender of the parties involved, and if the sentence was to be spoken in Turkish, the speaker would have to mention whether they witnessed the incident directly or just heard about it from someone.
These types of cross-linguistic differences cause speakers of different languages to pay attention and remember many different aspects of their daily activities in order to use their language correctly. Research has shown that these differences can cause variations in the way speakers of different language perceive things.
One of these differences that has been frequently observed across languages is the tendency of speakers of languages that have a grammatical gender to think about objects slightly differently than people who speak languages that have different grammatical genders or none at all.
In her study, Izabella Haertle tested French and Polish speakers on the traits they attributed to objects that had different genders in their respective languages.
Twenty native French and native Twenty Polish university students were participants of the study. In the first experiment, the participants were asked to assign either a male or female voice to 20 black and white images of natural objects and artifacts such as a book, a bell, a cloud, etc.; that have different grammatical genders in French and Polish.
The study found that French speakers were 76% more likely to assign an object a female voice if the grammatical gender of that object in French was also female, while only 18% likely to assign a male voice to an object whose grammatical gender wasn’t male.
In the second part of her experiment, she observed the typically masculine or feminine traits that French and Polish speakers attributed to certain objects depending on their grammatical gender. The researchers gave the participants a list of nouns which had opposite genders in French and Polish, such as a sofa, a wall, a palm tree, etc., and a list of traditionally masculine and feminine adjectives such as strong, dominant, independent (masculine) , and delicate, shy, gentle (feminine). The participants were then asked to match three adjectives to each noun. The researchers found that when French speakers were asked to attribute certain features to a given object, they were significantly more likely to attribute female features to items with female grammatical gender in contrast to items with male grammatical gender. Similar effects were seen in the results of the Polish speakers, where they were more likely to attribute traits that were traditionally attributed to a certain gender, to an object of that grammatical gender.
Similar studies conducted on speakers of different languages (Boroditsky ; Schmidt, 2000) (Sera, Berge, ; del Castillo Pintado, 1994) (Boroditsky ; Phillips, 2003) have also showed similar effects of grammatical gender affecting the tendency of speakers to think of certain objects as belonging to or having traits of the gender that is attributed to those words. They also observed that speakers of languages that do not have a grammatical gender do not show these tendencies. This can be partially attributed to the idea that speaking about an object as being of a certain gender, could cause the speaker’s schema of that object to be more towards the gender of the grammatical gender of the object, and therefore causes the speaker to think about that object as belonging to that gender even though in real life objects do not really have genders.
In English, we usually talk about time using horizontal metaphors such as front/ahead of us or back/behind us. However, certain other languages such as mandarin have different ways of expressing time. Mandarin speakers on the other hand, talk about time using vertical metaphors such as shàng (up) and xià (down).