Do you think the language you speak determines the way you think?

Do you think the language you speak determines the way you think?

Other people think so. It’s called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. There’s even a (very good) movie about it. It’s called Arrival.

What are your thoughts?


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.

This fits my experience with different groups of people who all speak English, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see that replicated across languages. The English case doesn’t require any difference that’s linguistically interesting, but just vocabulary. With one group of people you can have a long conversation about some ‘X’ problem, and for another group of people, if you try to speak about X you will be corrected: X is an invalid conflation of Y and Z, and those problems should be discussed separately. Or, X is hostile politicized language and communication can only proceed if you will speak about ‘W’ instead, which is not an exact synonym. Or, ‘X’ isn’t regarded as real at all, but a fake problem that haunts the original group like a social madness.

The examples I’ve heard have been like that: this tribe has so many words for ‘snow’; this other tribe doesn’t have a word for ‘blue’ and would identify blue colors as green. This is vocabulary, and a society can change its vocabulary without having to change its language.

I don’t mean by this that it’s even wrong that the language you speak affects the way you think. I just think Sapir was a linguist and that it’s very natural for a linguist to puff up the importance of language. But there are much powerful influences on thought, like

  1. Strong emotion and instinctive reactions. Fear and anger both cause you to focus on the cause for concern, which exaggerates its importance, which leads you to different decisions than if you were calm.
  2. What’s in your material interest. If your interests would be threatened if a particular conclusion were the case, you can be very slow to come to that conclusion.
  3. The bounds of acceptable discourse. Here’s a video game example: the Bioware game Anthem came out and immediately flopped, and was very unfavorably compared to the genre-leading game Destiny. It later came out that “Destiny” was a forbidden word for Bioware during their development of Anthem. Well, no wonder they failed to anticipate some of these comparisons.
  4. Vocabulary, as above.

Anyway, Sapir’s statement above, do you think that’s really describing the same idea as

One of those who adopted a more Whorfian approach was George Lakoff. He argued that language is often used metaphorically and that languages use different cultural metaphors that reveal something about how speakers of that language think. For example, English employs conceptual metaphors likening time to money, so that time can be saved and spent and invested.

? Isn’t that like saying that saying that we have an “astronomy” theory, with geocentrism an earlier statement of it, and heliocentrism a compatible evolution in the same school? They both talk about stars, the sun, the moon. Sapir and Lakoff both connect language to thought. There are just some details different, like whether the sun orbits the Earth or vice-versa, and whether you have to learn English to start thinking of time as money.

I’d say, “Sapir-Whorf” has a popular charm, so it is in the interest of linguists to say that their new idea is somewhat connected to it. A case like this from programming languages was Joe Armstrong arguing that Erlang was an object oriented language in a way. Erlang isn’t remotely object oriented, and he didn’t think so either, but managers liked objects.

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