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?

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.