How does language influence how we think?

Language shapes how we think about the world. Benjamin Whorf, a linguist in the early 1900s, called this phenomenon linguistic relativity. It is often said that the Eskimos have fifty words for snow, but it turns out that’s not true. Eskimo-Aleut languages have about as many words for snow as the English language. But the Sami languages spoken by indigenous people near the Arctic Circle in northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway have hundreds of words for snow. For example, in Lule Sami the word vahtsa means “one or two inches of new snow on top of old snow.” Bulltje means “snow that is stuck to a house” and åppås refers to “virgin snow that has not been walked on.” It’s important to keep in mind that just because the Sami have more words for snow, it does not mean that non-Sami speakers do not understand what “one or two inches of new snow on top of snow” means.

But how do broader concepts that are denoted by language affect our experience? Every language has different distinctions for color, for example, and linguists have surmised that what colors you can say are related to what colors you can see. In some languages green and blue are not different colors, but different shades of the same color. In Vietnamese, the word xanh is the color of both tree leaves and the sky.

An even more extreme example is the language Guugu Yimithirr (spoken by an indigenous group in Queensland, Australia) which does not use “left,” “right,” “behind,” or “in front of” to describe positions. Instead, Guugu Yimithirr speakers use cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) to describe the relationships between things. Where an English speaker may say, “To get to the bathroom, go to the end of the hallway and turn left. It’s the second door on the right,” a Guugu Yimithirr speaker would say, “Go to the end of the hallway and turn north. It’s the second door on the west side.” As Guy Deutscher explainsin his book Through the Language Glass, the small change in vocabulary may have an immense influence in your attitude towards the world.

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