Linguistic Relativity. The more you think about it the more interesting it becomes. Literally…

Beautifully made video, but the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has at least had tons of doubt cast upon it and has at most been totally refuted by linguistics studies D:

I think it’s important to differentiate two ideas here.

  1. Linguistic Determinism (Sapir-Whorf): if your language doesn’t describe something, you can’t think of it. So languages without a series of strong verbal tenses leaves its speakers without a concept of time.
  2. Linguistic Relativity: your language will influence your brain and reinforce certain things over others. Languages that prefer passive voice to describe certain actions (like something breaking) cause their speakers to pay less attention to who did the action, while ones that prefer active voice are more likely to blame someone for it.

The first has been refuted countless times in the last 60 or so years. However, the second is a new spin on Sapir-Whorf with what some linguists (or rather, cognitive scientists) view as valid. It’s kind of like “Sapir-Whorf light” and it isn’t so black-and-white.

I’m not sure where I stand on relativism; some of the work that’s been done is pretty interesting and some of it is presented fairly convincingly, even for a skeptic like me. Why is it that Germans tend to describe keys with more masculine adjectives, while Spaniards tend towards feminine keys? Why do Russians seem to categorize blue colors faster than English-speakers? Why do people with absolute directional words (north, south, east, west, as in Guugu Yimithirr) remember placement of objects differently than those with relative direction (left, right, in front, behind, as in most languages)? The results of the experiments have been really interesting to read, but sometimes I question the methods used (particularly in how grammatical gender affects how people view inanimate objects).

Of course, you have to watch where you read about relativism. When it’s transmitted through the mainstream laypeople, it tends to be warped to more Sapir-Whorfian extremes, but the actual conclusions drawn by those doing the research are careful not to let it get lost in the menacing shadow of its predecessor.

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