Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking

Anna Wierzbicka is a Polish-Australian linguist who has extensively researched intercultural linguistics, semantics and pragmatics. I have been reading many of her books and articles for my PhD research because she is interested in how language reflects ways of living and thinking, and more specifically, how the lexicon or words of a language can provide valuable clues to understanding culture.

Linguistic relativity, better known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, has been debated for quite a while by certain researchers who argue that human thought and language are completely separate and independent. Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, is probably the most popular denier. However, Pinker was attempting to describe human thought and cognition on the basis of English alone.  Wierzbicka, among others, has rightly criticized Pinker for his views on the link between language and thought. Here are a few quotes from the introduction to her book, Understanding Cultures through their Key Words:

“To people with an intimate knowledge of two (or more) different languages and cultures, it is usually self-evident that language and patterns of thought are interlinked… Monolingual popular opinion, as well as the opinion of some cognitive scientists with little interest in languages and cultures, can be quite emphatic in their denial of the existence of such links and differences.”

“The grip of people’s native language on their thinking habits is so strong that they are no more aware of the conventions to which they are party than they are of the air they breathe; and when others try to draw attention to these conventions they may even go on with a seemingly unshakable self-assurance to deny their existence.”

“The conviction that one can understand human cognition, and human psychology in general, on the basis of English alone seems shortsighted, if not downright ethnocentric.”

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that language constrains thought and prevents users of a language from thinking about certain concepts – is indeed wrong. The weak version of the hypothesis, which Guy Deutscher attempted to explain in his popular article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? and his book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, is generally accepted by most linguists. Deutscher, however, insists on stating that language creates thought when in fact it may be more accurate to say that culture influences thought, which is then expressed through language. Personally, I believe that language reflects and describes ways of living and thinking, but it does not necessarily shape or determine how you live or think.

This is precisely John McWhorter’s criticism of Deutscher’s book, though I do have to disagree with his assertion that color perception as evidence of linguistic relativity is “dull.” If someone does not think cultural elaboration through the lexicon, such as the famous words for snow example, is interesting or relevant, then why does that person bother researching languages and cultures in the first place? Besides, as Wierzbicka explains, “once the principle of cultural elaboration has been established as valid on the basis of ‘boring’ examples, it can then be applied to areas whose patterning is less obvious to the naked eye.”

Here’s an interesting experiment you can try with color perception. It will be very easy to choose which square is a different color in the image below.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


However, it will probably be a tiny bit harder to find which square is different in the second image. (If you’ve seen these circles before, beware that I did change the location of the different square!)


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Yet the Himba of northern Namibia have the exact opposite problem. They are able to detect the different square quite easily in the second image, but took longer for the first image, because their culture, and therefore language, has a different way of categorizing shades of colors. Not every human being thinks in terms of  ROYGBIV. Because English speakers do not normally classify colors based on slightly different shades (or at least what we perceive as slightly different shades) of green in the second image, it is harder for English speakers to see it at first glance, but the absence of that word does not mean that English speakers cannot see it at all or do not have the ability to form the concept in their minds.

My native language does not have a word for Schadenfreude but I certainly know what it is and can understand the concept. The fact that German has one word for this concept and English does not simply means that the concept is perhaps more salient for users of German, but it does not mean that users of other languages cannot conceive of what it is. There are countless “untranslatable” words such as saudade, hyggelig, or litost that express the values and thoughts of the people who use these words. They provide insights into the life of the society and culture to which the language belongs. We cannot even begin to understand a different culture if we do not know the words because it is through language that culture and ways of living and thinking are expressed.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Another book by Wierzbicka I recommend, Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures, includes the experiences of twelve Australians who speak more than one language. Their stories and their lives show how language, culture and identity cannot be separated and what it is like to live with, and between, multiple languages and cultures. For anyone who is a speaker of another language, the idea that you are a different person and that you interact with other human beings in a different way when using different languages seems a bit obvious. But most monolinguals are not aware that their worldview is shaped by their native, and only, culture and language. They tend to assume that the every human being thinks in the same way but simply uses different words for concepts, objects, ideas, etc. Even if they know a few words in another language, they believe that translations found in dictionaries are sufficient. Dictionaries may list freedom as the translation for French liberté, but are they really the same thing? How about truth and Russian pravda? Anger and Italian rabbia?

To quote Sapir: “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”

When I speak French, I am fully aware that I am not the same person as when I speak English. I do not interact with other French speakers in the same manner as I do with English speakers while I’m speaking English. There are certain concepts that I find easier to express in French, and yet others that do not have a strong enough emphasis or connotation for me if I use French rather than English. When I hear the word milk in English, I have a different concept of what it is compared to when I hear lait in French. I’ve explored some of these cultural differences before (Cultural Differences in Photos & Culturally Relevant Photos), but they are not limited to separate languages. There are, of course, differences among dialects of the same language. Whenever Australians say the word thongs, I picture a very different article of clothing than they do!

That is not to say that all words in a language are culture-specific. If they were, cultural differences couldn’t really be explored. Linguistic relativity is actually combined with linguistic universality. Wierzbicka is also the lead researcher on Natural Semantic Metalanguage, an approach to cultural analysis that is based on the idea that there are, in fact, a few universal meanings expressed by words (semantic primes) shared by all human languages and that using these primes can help eliminate cross-cultural miscommunication. Listen to/read her interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for more information.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this! Do you believe that how we speak shapes how we think OR that how we think shapes how we speak? Or are language and thought so interlinked that we cannot separate them?

  • Spsmith45

    Woah! Interesting post. Is it the green box at 7.00 which is lighter?!

    • Yes, in the original image the lighter green box was in the same place as the blue box but I rotated my image 90° left.

  • Very interesting research and extremely well written. Thanks, Jennie.

  • Emilylovig

    The fact that someone has difficulty finding the blue square, but no problem finding the green one (that I cant seem to see) is blowing my mind. But those books are really expensive. Do you have a recommendation for another book on this subject?

    • There are a few books like Translating Lives that focus on Americans that are published by US companies, so these might be cheaper for you:

      Language Crossings: Negotiating the Self in a Multicultural World by Karen Ogulnick

      Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Language and Creativity by Isabelle de Courtivron

      Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on their Craft by Steven G Kellman

      The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues by Wendy Lesser

      Two other researchers that are similar to Deutscher and McWhorter are Lera Boroditsky and Mark Liberman. Boroditsky believes that language does indeed shape thought, while Liberman believes that there aren’t enough facts to support that idea.

  • Emilylovig

    The fact that someone has difficulty finding the blue square, but no problem finding the green one (that I cant seem to see) is blowing my mind. But those books are really expensive. Do you have a recommendation for another book on this subject?

  • I really loved The Power of Babel after you reviewed it last year, so I guess I’m going to be adding these books to my reading list as well. My instinct is to reject the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis because I very often think in concepts without having words to describe what I’m thinking and sometimes can only express them in ways that come out as interpretive dance (the joy of being on the autistic spectrum, though i’m sure others experience it, too) – but I hadn’t really thought that maybe the “weak” version might still be applicable. The paper you linked titled “Color Categories and…” is very interesting reading.

    Ah, how I wish I had the money/time/academic ability to go back to school to study linguistics full-on rather than lazily reading relevant books as I come across them. I appreciate these kinds of posts from you, because I feel like I can add to my lazy reading in ways I might not have thought to look into.

    • I was focusing on words because that’s a large part of my PhD, and as Wierbicka noted, it is the part of language that is easiest to analyse, but the analysis is not limited to words from spoken and/or written languages. (Signs from signed languages are also included obviously.) I suppose it depends on what the definition of language is but I would also include dance in that category. The concepts and thoughts you have in your mind can be expressed through speech, writing, signs, even dance or painting or drawing. Traditional views of language (as spoken or signed systems) as communication may limit the idea that dance could be language, but I believe that it is a form of communication and it is a form of expression. It is simply one way of expressing the thoughts and meanings in your brain. Now the question is – Do YOU believe those thoughts are a product of your native culture or do you believe you were born with them and that all humans have those same thoughts?

      I plan to continue with posts like this as I read more for my PhD. I like summarizing the ideas and recommending books for others to read. 🙂

      •  Now the question is – Do YOU believe those thoughts are a product of
        your native culture or do you believe you were born with them and that
        all humans have those same thoughts?

        Ah, good point! Next time I lose my words, I’ll have to try to remember what I was attempting to express and see what it feels like.

        I’m reading Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language at the moment and was a bit frustrated by his statement that “me-first” ideas are completely natural when I came across it the other day. I couldn’t find a note in the back to substantiate the assertion, but felt it was rather precipitous that you posted on a similar topic shortly thereafter. Of course it seems totally natural that everyone is self-centered when it comes to relating experiences (to the point of teaching in conversation/socialising classes that you should refrain from “‘I’ subject” sentences unless you want to bore your partner), but I was hoping to be able to read more about the idea. Perhaps one of the many books you’ve listed here will have looked into the matter, or could point to the right direction. I think I’ll look into Boroditsky and Liberman, too.

        Thank you so much for sharing your research!

  • Thanks for this post.

    Cliff Goddard was my semantics lecturer so I got to read a lot of his and Wierzbicka’s work which I thoroughly enjoyed.

    • Yes, Goddard is another favorite of mine. I’m jealous he was your lecturer. I almost wish my PhD included coursework because I do miss some lectures.

  • I remember reading Pinker in college, though I can’t remember if it was for a linguistics or a cognitive science class. My professors seemed to mostly agree with him, so thank you for your recommendations for newer/different books! 

    • I do like his work in cognition, but in the end he is a psychologist and not a linguist, and certainly not a multilingual linguist.

  • Anonymous

    I wrote to Deutscher after his New York Times piece to see if he had done research on people who speak more than two or three languages and he said that, unfortunately, he hadn’t done any. I also haven’t seen any studies on the language and cultural patterns of those who speak more than two languages. I am most certainly a different person in each language I speak and I gravitate towards other polyglots so that I can easily weave in as many languages as possible to be as fully self expressed as I can be. If I could write a blog post in various languages that would be great but then I’d have a super small audience. 

    • It’s quite sad that so many researchers ignore the multilingual aspect! I’m surprised that even Deutscher didn’t think to include that.

  • Pukavypora

    While learning French when I was a teen, I had a strong skill for imitation, however, even now that I am a fluent speaker of that language, I tend to use my native language structures and thread of thinking to construct new ideas in French, especially while trying to explain something from my Spanish culture.

    When several French words express the same idea, with slight different nuances, I tend to choose the word most similar to Spanish in form, assuming that it’ll have the same meaning in French. This way I discover that very often, there is another factor playing which is INTENSITY. Different customs and degrees of use and application of a word often transform the meaning of a trivial word from one language to another. All that to say that I agree with you, it is culture that defines language, creating words and meanings to express a way of life, a manner of thinking. I believe that a person’s way of thinking (or worldview) is learned through a culture lived. Then comes language to communicate it.

  • I see that in Spanish tooname in vains using expressions such asAy Dios etc as taking God´´s name in vain although I hold to a different intpretation of that and tend not say such things.. America too refers to both South and North America And Americans, traditionally all those who live in both contienents. But as for everydays thing I don´t see them different when Speaking Spanish.

  • Filipe de Carvalho

    I think I might be bumping into a really old article but I just wanted to add my thoughts since I found this now doing some research.

    Having heard both from Pinker and McWhorter and as a Linguistics student, I think the ideas that they are trying to convey are to fight the strong hypothesis of Whorfianism and not to say that the world looks essentially the same for every speaker of any given language.

    I myself have studied over 10 languages in the past 7 years and I feel comfortable using about 5 nowadays. Personally, I am very inclined to believe that culture and language become integrated in such a way that as an individual grows up, it’s often difficult to disassociate views, concepts and sensations that we experience by being part of that culture. As you go and try to learn this foreign language, you also get affected by these “learned associations”. They are part of the culture, so you are essentially adapting to it by learning how to use their language in appropriate ways. It doesn’t essentially change who you are, but you might be more aware of certain concepts when using that language. I call that culture mirroring.

    I definitely feel more talkative when I’m speaking Italian and ideas seem to flow more easily, but I think I am simply mirroring Italians and how they usually interact with each other. In German, I might try to be more precise, use more fancy adjectives and be more reserved in public. That is, again, something that I feel German speakers do.

    As for the color tests, we could compare that to learning a new script. If you’ve never seen, say, the Georgian script and you take a quick look at it, you simply cannot go back and distinguish the characters because your eyes aren’t trained to make any distinctions. The same can be said for a lot of cognitive abilities that need to be learned. Surely, if certain synapses in the brain haven’t been established, our brains are somewhat different, but not in extreme unchangeable ways.

    The very own idea that we can understand new concepts without having specific words for them in our language show that there must be something deeper than language itself. Cognitive tests show that we process information in abstract, visual ways that are not directly connected to language. Having that said, I believe, the influences we get from our culture, from our peers, definitely influence thought patterns, but it’s not a constriction that language itself creates.