Linguistic relativity is the notion that language can affect our thought processes, and is often referred to as the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’, after the two linguists who brought the idea into the spotlight. Whorf writes how “Language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity” (1956:212), and I will explain how it is able to do so. In this essay I will argue that certain ways of mental categorization, spatial cognition and reality interpretation, based on the characteristics of our specific variety of language, influence our perception of the world. I will discuss how languages divide up nature differently, and the cognitive repercussions of doing so, before identifying contrasting methods of thinking about space and location, and then will finish by looking at how grammatical differences have the power to predispose a particular vision of reality.
Categorisation varies across different language groups
One noticeable difference between some languages is the different ways in which they categorise the various aspects of their environment. Whorf believed that cross-linguistically there is “divergence in the analysis of the world”, and that “languages dissect nature in many different ways” (1956:214), allocating objects and actions to sets of categories which may be different to other varieties.
Setting out to test this claim, Choi and Bowerman (1991) asked both Korean and English-speaking children to separate a set of actions, including “joining two Lego pieces”, and “putting toys in container” (1991:96), into two groups. The English children classified the scenes as either belonging to an ‘on’ group (e.g. the Lego pieces) or an ‘in’ group (e.g. the toys), whereas their Korean counterparts distinguished between actions where there was a resultant tight fitting relationship between the participants, and those where it was loose. Dirven and Verspoor note how the English differentiation is “entirely forced on these children by the contrast between the English prepositions in and on” (1998:140), whereas in Korean, “Kkita (glossable loosely as “fit”…) is indifferent to whether the Figure goes into, onto, over, or together with the Ground, as long as it leads to a tight fit” (Choi and Bowerman 1991:90).
The fact that the tested children grouped the actions in accordance with the grammatical structure of their respective language is evidence for linguistic relativity, as “both groups of children construe(d) the relations between objects in the world on the basis of their language specific categories, and not on the basis of some universal, conceptual categories” (Dirven and Verspoor 1998:140-141). This suggests that the children from the two linguistic communities will partly see the world in a different way, being inclined to categorise the things they see in contrasting fashions.
Certain features are deemed important enough...