Theory of Linguistic Relativity
by Jonah Rankin, Form VI
4 min. read — November 2, 2021
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a total language nerd. I study languages and linguistics outside of school, I’ve taken both Latin and Ancient Greek over the course of my time at the abbey, and I can spend hours studying every detail of textbooks, trying to understand new concepts.
If you could learn a new language to a high level, do you think you would look at the world any differently? It’s an interesting idea: to be able to perceive the world differently based on your linguistic identity. This idea commonly is referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but the name is a little misleading, since Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, two of the most influential figures in all linguistics studies, never actually published any sort of theory together; as a result, I prefer to call it The Theory of Linguistic Relativity. Simply, the premise is the following: the differences between the grammatical, morphological, or syntactical structures of separate languages can shape how their speakers perceive the world around them in different manners.
The most interesting part of this concept is that it also applies to people who really commit themselves to learning a language and immersing themselves in the culture of the speakers. As their level of proficiency increases, a part of their mind learns how to see the world through the native speakers’ eyes.
Being a nerd for languages, I’ve worked to teach myself all kinds of languages, and through my self-studies I’ve experienced these linguistic relativity incidents. Through my Korean and Japanese language studies I’ve learned that Confucian ideologies, specifically those which pertain to strict hierarchies of respect for older and more-experienced individuals, have ingrained themselves linguistically into both Korean and Japanese in the form of specific classes of words and phrases which are used only when you are talking to certain people. An English equivalent, which will definitely sound weird, would be if you were to ask your teacher their name by asking “How might your title exist?”, as opposed to “What is your name?”. Funnily enough, I actually have had moments where I spend time trying to figure out if English has a more respectful version of a question because I feel that the question is too informal on its own, and eventually, I’ll realize that I’m overthinking certain situations by searching for honorifics that don’t exist in English.
On a different family of languages entirely, most Germanic languages, English being mostly an exception, have the power to fuse two or more nouns together when they have no existing word. English has the term “Life Jacket” to mean the vest you wear on boats, but Dutch and German fuse their respective words for swim and vest/jacket to get “Zwemvest” and “Schwimmweste”, respectively. I sometimes like to include this linguistic ideology in my day-to-day life, and even though it looks really dumb in text, it works fine when spoken out loud. This can lead to some absolutely gargantuan words in Dutch and German, but native speakers understand them perfectly fine. Why don’t they get confused? Think about it like this: when you listen to someone speaking English, you’re not conscious of every space between the words you hear; you know automatically. The same applies to reading the words written down.
The two concepts I’ve presented are very different, but both linguistic features stem from cultural influences. The honorifics systems of Korean and Japanese both stem from culture, and in spending time learning the languages and immersing myself in the culture, I began to think like a native speaker. Dutch and German combine the roots of words together to create new words to use. Although this way of thinking about words and their function is not commonplace in American culture, through learning languages such as these, I began to understand and adapt to their ways of thinking. I may be passionate about linguistics and languages in general, but you don’t need to be an expert to immerse yourself in another culture or language. It takes time and effort, but the ability to see the world through another’s eyes is an experience which is well worth one’s time.