When one thinks of language, one’s mind generally shifts to its ability to let us communicate with one another, whether it is to express our feelings, to inform, or to direct. But language is often taken for granted; we rarely talk about its significance or think about what it can offer beyond communication, possibly because it doesn’t exist physically and we don’t see it. It is something that we are heavily dependent on, as it is an important tool to survive.
It’s true that language is a symbolic system that combines words and concepts to help us interact with one another and deliver a certain message. However, the Whorfian hypothesis claims that the semantics of a particular language influences and limits the perceptions of its speakers. For centuries, it has been debated by various linguistics and regarded as a highly controversial topic. Although language does not necessarily shape thoughts, it plays a crucial role in shaping symbolic realities, such as perception and values, and restricting them.
So what if languages are different?
We assume language is solely a medium for communication but our thoughts, feelings, and descriptions are conditioned and shaped by the possibilities of our language.
Language is a system that structures thoughts and ideas through grammar and vocabulary. It is no wonder that learning a new language may be so difficult. Different languages have different distinctions that a learner must get accustomed to. These particular structures create differences in the way people perceive things, which may limit their understanding of other language systems.
Herder and Von Humbolt suggest that people think differently because their language allows them to express the world around them in different ways. Time, for instance, is a concept that is quantified in the English language into measurable units such as seconds, minutes, and hours. Whorf claims that these countable units make English speakers objectify time, whereas the Hopis, a Native-American tribe, perceive it as a continuous cycle since their language does not include such terms. Hence, the perception of time is highly influenced by the way language demonstrates it.
Moreover, some languages have different names for several shades of colors, whereas other languages may have one name for one shade. The existence of these various words may emphasize on the difference of shade colors and make speakers feel differently about things related to this color. Because the Zulu language includes 39 words to describe different shades of green, people who speak this language may have different outlooks to trees than speakers of another language.
In some languages, such as the Anishinaabe language, the world is not objectified by creating divisions between subject and object. Rather, objects are embedded in the verbs, so that there’s a subject-verb relationship rather than a subject-object relationship. The way this language is structured creates a particular worldview in which its speakers inherit that differentiates between subjects and objects.
Do we need language to think?
Language is an essential tool that allows us to think, but nonetheless, one can think without the use of language through different means. Some people perceive things visually better than linguistically. For instance, a person with a photographic memory recalls images rather than words when trying to define an object or event. Also, people with mental disabilities, such as autism, may face immense difficulties with language and speech. They think in ways that are different from that of an average person, each depending on their respective abilities.
According to Temple Grandin, an autistic professor and consultant, there are three types of autistic thinkers: visual thinkers, who process things by thinking in pictures, verbal/vocal thinkers, who process words and speech better than visuals, and musical/mathematical thinkers, who process things through patterns.
Grandin considers herself to be a visual thinker:
“Thinking in language and words is alien to me. I think totally in pictures. It is like playing different tapes in a video cassette recorder in my imagination. I used to think that everybody thought in pictures until I questioned many different people about their thinking processes”.
While we’re capable of thinking without language, language makes us aware of it. Language is not merely for communication purposes, but rather, functions as a symbolic system that allows us to think in a structured manner by organizing our thoughts and ideas. Time and color are both general concepts that could be perceived differently in different languages due to their varying structures.
Language indeed highly influences the way we think and act. The differences in grammar, vocabulary, and the sequence of words shapes an individual’s outlook and values. Every language is very distinct and represents a different social reality.