Does language determine how we think?
In Dennis Villeneuve’s 2016 film, Arrival, aliens visit the Earth with a gift to mankind: their language. By learning this language, one of the protagonists begins to see the future as a memory. This, one of the characters explains, supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language determines how we perceive the world.
Although many have questioned the claims of the hypothesis, and to some extent it is no longer taken seriously, there is still merit in examining the idea, which is explored directly in Guy Deutscher’s ‘Through the Language Glass’ and indirectly in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made.’
Deutscher’s book begins with a long exploration of colour. William Gladstone, before becoming British Prime Minister, devoted many years to his three volume ‘Studies On Homer’. One of his most astonishing observations is that Homer does not refer to the colour blue. So the question arises, and this is central to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: if Homer had no word for blue, was he unable to perceive the colour? Homer describes the sea as ‘wine dark’, but then sheep are violet, honey is green. According to Gladstone, Homer’s colours were not facts but images, and maybe the use of green to describe honey was to convey a sense of it being fresh, like a newly snapped twig. The sea is dark, forbidding. The ‘unharvestable sea’.
Nevertheless, nothing, in Homer, is blue.
In 1898, the year that Gladstone died, W.H.R. Rivers, anthropologist and psychiatrist, while studying the people of the Murray Islands, off the coast of Australia, discovered that although they had no word for blue (they described the sea as ‘black’) they could differentiate colours as well as anyone else. Thus the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was refuted.
But Deutscher’s book takes the reader along a clever path, first demonstrating that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is ‘ludicrous’, and how could anyone seriously entertain such nonsense, but then slowly pulls us back to a point on that path where it may have some substance after all, the most astonishing example being the Aborigine speakers of Guugu Yimithirr. This language does not use egocentric coordinates as we do, but geographic coordinates. Guugu Ymithirr has no words for ‘left’ and ‘right’ and doesn’t use ‘in front of’ or ‘behind’. Instead speakers use the cardinal points north, south, east and west. Instead of saying ‘John is in front of the tree’, they would say ‘John is north of the tree’. This means, of course, that they must always know where north, south, east and west are. And they do. They have, as Deutscher terms it ‘a perfect pitch’ for direction.
So, is it because they speak a particular language they are more likely to have this ‘perfect pitch’? If so, this may uphold Sapir-Whorf.
Deutscher’s book is wonderful. He leads you to agree an argument, then shows you how wrong you were to trust him. Towards the end of the book he explores ‘Russian blues’. Russian has a word for ‘light blue’ (goluboy) and ‘dark blue’ (siniy). Do Russians see these colours more distinctly because of these words? Well, yes, it seems they do, again supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
But what we’re left with is a very diluted form of the hypothesis, language does affect how we see the world. A little. Maybe not much.
If Deutscher comes to any conclusion he states it first in quoting Franz Boas: ‘Languages differ essentially in what they must convey not in what they may convey.’ And his own pithy maxim: ‘culture enjoys freedom within constraints’.
Meanwhile Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made’ explores similar territory but with specific attention to the language of emotions. Her theory of ‘constructed emotion’ is interesting, although, compared with Deutscher’s book, her book is woolly, overlong and burdened with too much speculation. Feldman Barrett suggests that emotions do not exist, are social constructs, and ‘each of us needs an emotion concept before we can experience or perceive that emotion.’
This, I think, is central to her argument. Find a word to describe your inner state, and that inner state will be isolated, understood. Most emotions are the result of this, but what is being isolated is not necessarily something physical, but a senstation simplified because it corressponds to what is socially agreed. ‘Culture is a cohesive set of mental representations.’
Norwegians have ‘Forelsket’ the intense joy of falling in love; Russians ‘Tocka’ or spiritual anguish. And the Japanese have ‘Age-otori’ – the feeling of looking worse after a haircut. These emotions may not be unknown to English speakers, but they are more elusive. Nevertheless, she argues, they are all socially constucted and when a word is allocated to them, they have a new reality.
What Feldman Barrett advocates is a scepticism of simplistic emotional termniology, while, at the same time, exploration of a greater granulartiy of language will give us more access to our inner states, and therefore a deeper understanding of ourselves.