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When we talk about language, we often dig down to universal categories like
nouns and verbs, consonants and vowels, phrases and sentences.
We end up with these cross-language concepts that individual languages are
almost as if the colorful diversity found in the world's languages is just
icing on the strong unity of the linguistic cake
and language is grounded in our way of thinking and processing information
which is itself universal among humans. So languages and cultures are
superficial, but language and cognition run deep.
But this isn't the only way to look at language.
What if the language we are brought up to speak actually relates to the way we
look at reality?
From this perspective a language is a particular way of conceptualizing the
world, and has close ties to culture.
In the 1930's, Benjamin Lee Whorf talked about language this way.
He argued that different languages represent different ways of thinking
about the world around us.
This view has come to be called linguistic relativity.
Exploring the grammar of the Hopi language, he concluded that
the Hopi have an entirely different concept of the time than European
and that the European concepts of "time" and "matter"
are actually conditioned by language itself.
One practical consequence of
linguistic relativity: direct translation between languages isn't always possible.
Since Hopi and English aren't simply
ways of expressing the same thing in different words,
you can't actually preserve thoughts or viewpoints when you translate between them.
In its strongest expression, linguistic relativity - the idea that viewpoints vary
from language to language - relies on linguistic determinism -
the idea that language determines thought.
In other words how people think doesn't just vary depending on their language but
is actually grounded in - determined by - the specific language of their community.
has been abandoned and criticized over the decades
with critics aiming to show that perception and cognition are universal,
not tied to language and culture,
but some psychologists and anthropologists continue to argue
that differences in a language's structure and words may play a role in determining
how we think.
Experiments on how speakers of different languages approach
non-linguistic tasks continue to spark this debate.
Thank you for joining me on this quick tour of linguistic relativity and
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