On Language and Reality

Linguistic Relativity

The theory of linguistic relativity (also called the Sapir-Worfian theory in honor of its authors) claims that the specific language spoken by a person has an inherent influence upon the cognition of the speaker. In other words, the language a person speaks, depending on its grammatical and semantic characteristics, affects the way that person views the world, reacts in it, and expresses about it.

This theory somewhat contradicts Chomsky’s theory of a “universal language,” for precisely the developed differences among languages are what prompts different types of cognizance of different people. However, the usual position of scholars towards this discrepancy between the theories is a moderate one, considering that both of these are true in different degrees—a position that opposes any sort of “purism” related to the theories.

There have been several different studies dealing with aspects of linguistic relativity throughout the years, starting with one made by Worf among the Eskimo people, which proved that the fact that Eskimos see and/or have different words for snow (according to slight differences that only they can appreciate), has an impact on how the Eskimos view and act in the world (of snow). Other aspects that have been studied in cross-linguistic and cross-cultural examinations include the notions of numbers (how counting is perceived and executed depending on the way to express quantity; for example, cross-examining Amazonian dialects and English), spatial terms, color perception (i.e. Japanese compared to English and the notions of red), metaphorical focus (for instance, Spanish direction-oriented verbs vs. English manner-oriented verbs), and gender (feminine and masculine in Italian as opposed to “neutrality” in English). All of these studies, rather than trying to disprove linguistic relativity, have focused on observing and determining how exactly language affects our perception of the world.

Thus, linguists can conclude (and agree upon) that language strongly influences our way of thinking, with the little differences among the different human languages and dialects being almost evolutionary adaptations of the mind to understand better the world we live in.

Linguistics: Views & Beliefs

The material studied throughout the course not only confirmed many of my beliefs about language in its multiple aspects (such as psychological, cross-cultural, sociological), but also gave me deep and interesting insight on each of these which I previously ignored (regardless of any “suspicion” or assumption I could have already about the existence of such).

For example, I’ve always had the strong conviction that “language defines our reality,” just as Wittgenstein stated in his philosophical writings. Therefore, it was fascinating to discover all the studies and theories that stemmed (directly and indirectly) from this claim; linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism are just a couple of examples to mention. I now understand a little better how people can see the same ink spot and describe different objects.

Related to this phenomenon, the cross-cultural differences inherent to language were another interesting discovery. Learning about specific cases of these, besides insightful happened to be amusing at times—for instance, the inability of certain uncivilized tribes to deal with numerical language because they do not really need to count beyond one, two, and many.

Another striking topic was language acquisition, specifically that of a second language. It is almost a common-sense presupposition that knowing another language besides the native means opening up to more knowledge through that second language (i.e. knowing English broadens up business opportunities in this globalized world). Nevertheless, the confirmation of this presupposition turned out to be way more important: a second language widens horizons of cognition that otherwise could be constrained by the native language—a second language literally expands the limits of the mind and the views of the world.

Ultimately, the deeper analysis of English (specially its grammar, dialects, and deficiencies and imperfections) was another entertaining trait of the course, for it is a language I am very fond of and for which I had been educated (in the most inclusive sense possible) for years. But it was not until now, with more insight and deeper understanding of English as a system, serious cultural immersion, and cross-cultural and cross-linguistic analysis, that I feel truly educated—I can now say I really know English.

(Written in Dallas, TX, 2008)


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