Linguistic Relativity: the Impact of Language & Society

As English speakers, we experience life in English. Our every thought is formulated with the English terminology available to us. But how might our experience and our thinking be different if our primary language was not English but German or Arabic? Who might we be if we were living through another language?

It is this very question that has motivated linguists for hundreds of years to grapple with the validity of linguistic relativity. Those who subscribe to the theory of linguistic relativity believe that a person’s way of thinking is influenced by the language he or she speaks. Signs of this influence seem to be everywhere: as English speakers and writers, we tend to spatially represent time from left to right, while those who speak and read Hebrew tend to represent time from right to left. However, when we make these observations, we often fail to take into account where language comes from. When we consider the theory of linguistic relativity, we must take into account that languages develop within and emerge from distinct cultures. Language is a result of society. Therefore, language does not deserve the credit for shaping the way we process information. Differences in the thought processes of speakers of different languages should be accredited to the distinct cultures from which these languages emerge. Nevertheless, language is an important factor in the way a culture evolves. Ultimately, although it is our society rather than our language that shapes the way we think, language helps to enforce the way society is.

Language cannot be said to be responsible for the way a society functions since language itself is a result of that society. A key example of this can be found in the substance of a language, which tends to reflect the values of its speakers and the culture it comes from. The Korean language demands the use of honorifics according to seniority, whereby a younger speaker must use honorifics when conversing with an older speaker. Most Korean nouns and some verbs have a specific honorific form. For instance, if a younger speaker were to ask an older speaker their name, the younger speaker would have to use the honorific form sengham or conham for name, rather than the plain noun, ilum. In this case, a culture’s high regard for respect according to age had such a strong influence on the language of its speakers that an entire set of words formed for the purpose of serving this cultural element. A proponent of linguistic relativity might argue that this is an example of language shaping the way people think by defining age as the primary quality to know about a person. However, this assertion fails to recognize the big picture. A more accurate analysis might indicate that society is responsible for this way of thinking, not language. According to linguist Kit Wong, the reason for the widespread use of honorifics in Korea is the “hierarchical culture in Korea that one should respect people who are older, even if only by a few months.” It is Korean culture that defines age as the primary quality to know about a person, and the structure of the Korean language is simply a reflection of that.

However, language still plays an important role in affecting cultures and social norms. Although languages are reflections of cultures, languages do influence how cultures will look in the future. We can see this phenomenon in the history of the English language, which dates back to sometime between the 5th and 7th century AD, with Modern English gaining prominence in the late 17th century. Although English is always evolving, much of it retains the influence that 17th century society had on its development. This is because the evolution of society outpaces that of language. For example, English sentence structure is formulaic and follows a certain word order despite having its parts of speech grounded in Latin, a language wherein word order does not matter. English developed this way due to the nature of the literary culture of medieval society. Typical English sentence structure remains this way despite our progression past this age. As we see with English sentence structure, the influence of cultural institutions on a language is often left intact even after that institution has weakened or disappeared.

Because the evolution of society outpaces that of language, the lesser rate at which language can change acts as a hindrance on the rate at which society can progress. In the words of philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the limits of my language are the limits of my mind.” Since language is our only proficient method of communication, what we can communicate is limited to the words and phrases available to us. While the society we live in may limit our perspective, the extent and strength of these limitations do not compare to that which language imposes. Cultural change comes more easily to us than linguistic change. It took centuries for the Great Vowel Shift to occur while the world experienced revolutions, literary movements, great awakenings and deadly plagues at a much faster pace. This pattern is demonstrated in American culture as the language we speak fails to keep up with the progress we make. Patterns in our vocabulary tend to reflect this. A commonly cited phenomenon is the negative and positive associations that English seems to make with “black” and “white.” Although American society has generally moved in a positive direction in the past fifty years toward overcoming racism and discrimination against African Americans, our language would indicate something different. The phrases we use with ‘black’ in them, like blackmail, black mark, black deed, black market, and black magic, tend to have a dangerous or unethical connotation to them, whereas the phrases we use with ‘white’ in them, such as white knight, tend to have a connotation of purity and innocence. This pattern of associations with these words stems from racist and outdated notions that continue to influence the English language despite fading from American society. Thus, as social progress outpaces linguistic progress, the rate at which our society as a whole can progress is limited.

The limits of language may prevent us from progressing as quickly as we may want to, but we do have the ability to overcome some of these linguistic limits. With enough momentum, new ways of thinking and new terminology can develop. As commonly cited, the term “sexual harassment” entered the mainstream in the 1980s when the demand to address it grew. Once we had a word for this topic, people were able to discuss it and deal with the problem. Ultimately, when we respond to the question of how we might be different from speakers of German or Arabic, we need to see the issue through a cultural lense as well as a linguistic lense. In addition, we must remember that we do not need to be trapped by our culture and our language into thinking a certain way. Language may help to enforce the way society is, but if we care enough about an issue, we have the ability to tackle it regardless of the limitations our language might pose.

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