004 – The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Recently I re-watched Arrival, one of my favourite science-fiction movies. This time, after watching the movie I decided to better understand why I liked it. This led me onto a journey of surprising discoveries.

Upon inspection, I found myself particularly fascinated by the movie’s suggestion that the language we speak may change the way we think. The aliens regard time as non-linear and their language expresses ideas without adhering to any traditional rules of syntax or sequence. The circularity of their logograms maps onto the cyclicity of their worldview. Time is one big cycle that they can see from outside. The movie thus ends with its protagonist – a linguistics researcher – acquiring the ability to see the future after learning the alien language.

The story is a reference to Benjamin Lee Whorf who argued that we have a linear view of time because we talk about it as an object that you can count, save or spend. Whorf contrasted this with the Hopi Indian language whose grammatical categories represent the world as a continuous process where time cannot be measured or divided. The stories of the non-linear thinking Heptapods and Hopis express the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which claims that the nature of the language we speak influences the way we think.

More specifically the hypothesis comes in two different versions. The strong version, called linguistic determinism, says that there’s a causal relationship between language and thought: linguistic categories determine cognitive categories. What this means is that you can think of something only if you have learnt the word for it in advance. For example, in Arrival the protagonist acquires the ability to see the future only after she has learnt the alien language. So far proponents of linguistic determinism have been unable to prove it and only offered anecdotal evidence. For this reason most linguists today do not believe in it and some even consider it dangerous, perhaps for its temping simplicity.

Linguistic determinism is also in direct contrast with the idea that language is an expression of innate and evolutionary concepts and abilities which many philosophers and linguists, including Plato, St. Augustine, Roger Bacon, Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker subscribed to. There is a good amount of evidence in favour of the universal language hypothesis: children who developed linguistic abilities even when deprived of stimuli and groups of people who formed new languages when they had no common linguistic knowledge.

The weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is called linguistic relativism and says that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions, meaning there is a correlation between language and worldview. Research on weaker forms has produced positive empirical evidence for a relationship. For instance, Kashima & Kashima showed that people living in countries where spoken languages often drop pronouns tend to have more collectivistic values than those who use non–pronoun drop languages.

Given its correlational nature, linguistic relativity does not specify the direction of the relationship between language and thought. This implies that while language may influence the way we speak it could also reveal something about how speakers of a given language think. For example, George Lakoff put forward the idea that the different metaphorical meanings of a language may reveal the values and cultural imagery of its speakers.

Overall, what we think and speak seem very much intertwined and hard to isolate from one another. Identifying the precise strength of each direction in this relationship seems beyond our current experimental capabilities. Hence, upon inspection, I learnt that the primary metaphor of Arrival’s story, and one of the reasons for my excitement, is scientifically dubious.

However, reflecting more about it I realised that the movie represents much more than just one exotic scientific conjecture. Regardless of whether the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true, what Arrival really teaches us is that the way we think and communicate is intertwined with our contexts and is hard to be aware of it. Language on earth is both physically and socially embedded. Understanding any sentence requires a lot of knowledge about its context. We usually process and understand sentences automatically and are unaware of all the knowledge we are relying upon to do so.

Given this, understanding someone foreign, being an alien or just another human, requires humility, care and precision and as portrayed in the movie, we can do this by

  • interacting with who we are trying to understand with curiosity and establish a mutually revealing relationship
  • making sure we can clearly understand very simple expressions without projecting our thoughts onto them
  • looking for pattern, trying different hypothesis and testing generalizations like a scientist would

While linguistics may not be able to tell us (yet) which language to learn to become superhuman, I feel inspired by how it can help us bring more robustness into the process of understanding someone else.

188 thoughts on “004 – The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

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