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Language and Perception of Reality

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Our words affect what we see

The work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf about seventy years ago was based on a mistake; they incorrectly thought the Hopi language had no tenses (past, present, future).

Most importantly, they suggested that our common sense notion that words were simply labels we attach to things –– was wrong.  Instead, each language has embedded in it ways of looking at the world.

In English, we have no precise word equivalent to the German "Weltanschauung," or the French "prise de conscience," meaning that language has perception built into it.

Much was made of the Inuit language where there is no precise equivalent to the single English word "snow."

Because snow is such an important part of survival of people of the north, they had nineteen different words that varied according to the condition of snow.

At first, some argued that this was only a matter of what sizes and shapes of boxes are the words we use in which to put experiences.

In English, however, we have no single word meaning the chemical, di-hydrogen oxide (H2O).

If you want to object and say, "But we have the word 'water,'" let me point out that the word "water" does not apply to conditions of H2O when it is frozen, crystallized or vaporized, for which we have other words (ice, snow, steam, fog, clouds, humidity).

From the time we are born, we are inundated with thousands of bits of information per second, as sound, smell, touch, temperature and sight.

They are many and random.  In themselves, they have no meanings.

It is only through our interaction with other human beings that we begin to apply meaning, and we start to put a range of different information bits into the same categories, words.

Those words, or categories of large numbers of information bits, differ from language to language.

When you observe something, eg your sociology instructor in class, you do not obtain exactly the same set of information bits as your neighbouring student.

Two things (including students) can not occupy the same space at the same time.

Yet you would usually agree that you have both seen the same thing at that time.

A lot of work has been done with the language of colours, because we can use colour charts from culture to culture, then draw comparable maps of the boundaries between colours.

English, for example, has two separate words for red and a mixture of red and white (pink) but does not have two separate words for blue and a mixture of blue and white.

In my own work among the Kwawu of West Africa, I found that there were three basic colours, black, white and red, which were at the base of the traditional cosmology, and all other colours were combinations or colours "of" concrete things.

The word "yellow," for example, would be translated into "the colour of chicken fat" (which is reminiscent of the Yiddish word "schmaltz").

Some observers have attributed to language a factor in the winning of the space race by the Soviets in 1957, putting Sputnik, the first human made satellite, into earth orbit.

The Russian language has a discontinuous tense, where something continues, stops, then continues again.

That, in turn, allowed Russian mathematicians to more easily work with the concept of something divided by zero, derivatives (in calculus).

This, in turn, allowed Russian mathematics and calculus to get far ahead of the Americans and Western Europeans.

That advanced mathematics, in turn, was a factor in the Soviets putting Sputnik up.

It does not matter if you "believe" this or not.

Your task is not to believe in something, but to learn the hypothesis and be able to explain it in some ordered and understandable manner.

Your beliefs, opinions and feelings are for class and email discussions, not for exams.

There are lots of debates around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and, if you study sociolinguistics, you will discover many of them.

At first (eg in this introductory course), however, you need to learn what the hypothesis is.

The languages we learn have profound impacts on how we see the world around us.

To some sociolinguists, this means that language determines reality.

The implications of this are immense.

Our entire way of life is based on language, although (like strange fish knowing water) most of that linguistic base is invisible to us.

While language is a tool, and belongs to the technological dimension of culture, it appears to be one of our earliest.

It allows us to go far beyond our primate cousins in terms of complexity and connections with other families, other communities, other nations and world wide, to develop a world wide economy (and think about that next time you eat an orange or drink a cup of coffee).

It is an essential requirement for international and other co-operation, even if it is not a guarantee for it.

Learning another language than our first is not merely the learning of a code.

It means learning another way of dividing up perceptions into different schemes of categories, learning a different culture and therefore reality, and deepens our depth of understanding the world and the nature of culture.

Like having binocular vision gives us 3-D depth of vision, so does having fluency in more than one language gives a "3-D" depth of cultural awareness.

In the 1930s, the author, George Orwell, warned us against "Newspeak" where words and phrases were given new meanings and uses them support of political oppression (a tyrannical regime is called "big brother" in his book).

Today we have a profession called "spin doctoring," no matter what it might be called, where there is deliberate and conscious alteration and manipulation of traditional meanings so as to interpret unpleasant news in ways that are favourable to a party in power.

Here we have, as mentioned in class by a student, a new term like "collateral damage" as a soft and guiltless phrase to rename the senseless deaths and injuries to innocent women, children and others standing nearby a military action.

The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not accepted by all social scientists.

See:  Sapir.


1. For some of my writing on learning a language, see "An Aural Method to Learn an Oral Language," which you can get by clicking on  www.cec.vcn.bc.ca/cmp/aural.htm

2. Today's tool, which serves the purpose once served by the pen (more mighty than the sword), is the computer keyboard (more powerful than an RPG).

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Last update: 2012.06.20

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