Common wisdom says our worldviews are shaped by many things: the places we grow up, the events of our lives, the people we meet. But what about the languages we speak?
Languages often have their own internal logic, unique properties and idiosyncrasies, and since people think up and communicate in linguistic sentences, some say language may well shape the way we think, and thus the way we see the world.
Does language shape thought?
Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian German-speaker, argued that since individuals compose thoughts in the grammar of their language, their worldview must be shaped by it. According to Humboldt, the differences in languages must lead to differences in national worldviews.
This argument led to the idea that “superior” languages produced intellectual thinkers, and “inferior” languages that did not. Nineteenth century linguist William Dwight Whitney argued that Native American languages turned their speakers into savages.
Anthropologist Franz Boas was extremely critical of Whitney’s idea that one language could be better than another. Boas’ student Edward Sapir found that one culture could include several languages, and that a single language could span several cultures. Based on this observation, it is not difficult to conclude that since two speakers of one language could hold very different worldviews, the influence of the former on the latter cannot be particularly strong.
Still, there is a strong argument to be made that a language is a toolbox and you build with the tools that you have. German, for example, allows speakers to creatively think up compound words during conversation (or, perhaps more likely, writing). This liberal attitude to new compounds led to the language’s infamous trove of words which have no English equivalent.
Schadenfreude, for example, puts a single word to the feeling of pleasure at another’s misfortune. However, though the German language gave us a handy label for that sensation, speakers of other languages were certainly aware of the feeling. Proverb 24 of the Bible says: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.” In many more words, this proverb is advising against Schadenfreude.
Does thought shape language?
In his 1911 work The Mind of Primitive Man, Franz Boas concluded that “languages were moulded by thought, not thought by languages.”
Benjamin Whorf, another early 20th century linguist, argued that the number of Eskimo words for snow proved these cultural groups thought about the topic in a far more detailed and complex way. Whorf never gave a specific number, but media outlets have suggested it could be anything up to 100 words when reporting his research.
More recent detailed findings (complete with numbers) suggest there are in fact around 15 separate snow-related words in Eskimo languages, for specific things like ‘severe blizzard’ and ‘crust on fallen snow’. These are two things we may have witnessed as English-speakers, but we certainly don’t have individual words for them, perhaps because we do not experience them enough.
The above logic, though, could also be used to suggest German speakers feel Schadenfreude more than any other linguistic group, which is why they came to name it. However, we already know that Schadenfreude the word was created thanks to the German language’s grammar rules, not the German people’s penchant for Schadenfreude the feeling. Similarly, it seems that the structure of the Eskimo language leads to its multiple words for snow. The 15 words found in the study above are all derived from around three or four root words for snow or related weather, which is more in line with the words for snow in the English language such as sleet, blizzard, slush, and so on.
This conclusion is in line with the work of Noam Chomsky, who argued that the grammatical rules underpinning languages have more similarities than differences. His theory of ‘Universal Grammar’ says that language rules are based on the cognitive process, and that differences between languages are superficial.
Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct goes even further arguing that humans do not even think in any language, but in a kind of ‘meta-language’ or ‘mentalese’. Any spoken language brings this meta-language to life in a different way.
So what is the relationship between language and thought?
With all these different theories, can we really measure the impact language has on worldview? It seems that early ideas of language’s straightforward influence on thought have been displaced by theories of the opposite, but this is still a hot topic of debate.
But no matter how similar or different language can make our worldviews, the languages themselves are still unique enough to leave room for many different interpretations. The only way to truly see if different languages create different worldviews is to communicate across the language barrier. For that, the best translators and interpreters are required.