Language and Reality
Language is an essential function in every society, and allows us to share our culture and pass on our beliefs. It seems to be known and established that our culture has a direct impact on our language. This understanding of the function of our language is generally and widely accepted among anthropologists as well as in our society. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, however, proposed a different hypothesis which has not been so readily embraced. In their theory, they believed that language could change the way a person perceived reality. We will take a look at a few examples of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and attempt to understand how our lives may be changed if we were subjected to other languages since birth.
Our language can be used as a tool for building our culture. Each culture uses a different set of tools to create the desired impact. In the same sense that a farmer would need a completely different set of items than a fisherman, our languages dictate the type of reality we find ourselves embedded within. Using the example above, it would be hard to produce an effective fisherman using only a farmer’s tools. This is important in understanding the language tools used by people of differing cultures, and exactly how those differing tools can ultimately alter their reality.
Generally, the best way to understand how language can dictate our reality is to take a look at the children of different cultures and languages. A wonderful example of this is the idea of gender specification. Some languages, such as Hebrew, place heavy emphasis on gender. All nouns are broken down into masculine and feminine forms. In the United States, we have some distinction but not nearly to the extent of the Hebrews. In Finland, there is little language to differentiate gender. How could this language affect culture? Middle Eastern nations have the lowest toleration of homosexuality; however, European nations were among the most accepting of such behavior. The results of these statistics could be, in part, due to the language spoken and the effects it has on the reality of those who speak it.
In Hopi culture there seems to be no distinction in past, present, and future events. This is a far cry from our English language and the emphasis we place on time relativity. Our English verbs have tenses, ensuring that we can immediately determine exactly when an action took place. It is not surprising, then, that our people almost seem to be controlled by time. We are in a constant battle with the calendar and clock. Our children’s stories begin with “once upon a time”, and engrain within our young ones an idea that there is a time for everything. We have snack time, play time, bed time and so forth. These children grow up feeling the stress and pressures of such scheduling. The language of the Hopi, however, does not emphasize time in nearly such stringent tones. Imagine a society that was not bound to deadlines or schedules; try to wrap your brain around even a week with no direct effects of time. A Hopi child, as opposed to an American child, does not understand the standing three count that we rattle off to our young. The Hopi child would likely be expected to obey their parent or guardian immediately, not before a certain scaling number was reached. With less focus on time and a strict adherence to schedule, the Hopi are certainly less stressed and rushed than Americans. It is not surprising that Hopi means “the peaceful people”.
Lastly, the idea of numbering in a language is believed to affect the ability of different cultures to identify images. The Yucatec Mayan language allows the noun to remain neutral in regard to number, where English ensures that there is an indication of exactly how many or how much is being referred to. Strangely, this has less of an effect on actual numbering and more impact on how things are described. The Mayans are more likely to refer to an item by its material composition. People who speak English, however, have a tendency to attribute shape to items. Americans want to label everything according to shape if no number quantity presents itself. Our shapes help us attribute number quantities to things that otherwise would not be easy to describe. We have dunes of sand and cubes of sugar; however, the Mayans do not feel the need for such distinction. Also, when asked to recall images the Mayans did not elaborate on the number of items shown in the pictures. On the other hand, the English speaking participants more often offered the actual number. American society is heavy on how much or how many things we can acquire. We have limits on how many fish we are allowed to catch and how many wild animals we are allowed to hunt. There are laws about how many miles per hour we are allowed to travel while on the roads. I imagine Mayan culture and how liberating it must be to be freed from the constant constraints of number and volume.
There is one glaring problem in testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; there is no real way to separate the effect of language from the many other variables and aspects of culture. Using our analogy of the fisherman and the farmer, there is no way to know for certain that the tools alone are what define the person as a fisherman or farmer. Could a farmer become a fisherman simply by changing his tools? There are simply too many variables to safe for certain that language alone can alter our reality. However we have proven that, at least in some fashion, our language does indeed have some bearing on our perceptions of what is real. It is likely that a child from Israel would be more tolerant of homosexuality if the language did not make such a distinction between male and female. A Hopi child would almost certainly be bound to the same constraints of time if the language constantly referenced it. If a Mayan had the language to describe everything numerically, then certainly they would make that distinction. So, although we cannot prove the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, we can certainly hold it up and draw some interesting conclusions.
Ember, C.R., Ember, M., & Peregrine, P.N. (2009). Human Evolution and Culture. Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.