How Does Language Influence Thought?

New research has shown that the particular language you speak affects the way you see the world. This is due to a subject called “Linguistic Relativity”. This was started by Benjamin Whorf. As a safety inspector, he saw the power of language on people’s thoughts. When workers in a factory saw gas canisters labeled “empty”, they thought that it must not be dangerous. However, these empty canisters were more likely to explode than full ones because of extremely flammable residue left over in the canisters.

 

This connection between words and actions led to linguistics. This then led to the idea that language shapes our world view. According to Whorf, the language we speak prevents us from understanding concepts outside of our language. This was proven false because, as it turns out, no language can imprison thought but it can cause us to think in certain ways. This became known as linguistic relativity:

Languages are designed with the users of the language in mind. Each language has its own advantages and disadvantages. Languages develop according to the needs of the people speaking it.

But how exactly do the differences in languages shape our thoughts? For example, the word “you” in english can be directed to anyone you’re talking to, but in Spanish and French there are two forms of the word “you”: one is formal and one is informal. These differences show the relationship between the speaker and the listener as well as the tone that the speaker wants to convey like respectful, rude, considerate, or joking.

 

By constantly forcing speakers to establish their relationship with others, languages like French and Japanese shape their thoughts to consider the status of the relationship. This enforces cultural ideals that already exist. In English, everyone is spoken to with the same pronoun. This can shape thought as well.

Every person speaks their own language differently. For example, in each different geographic region in the US, people tell stories differently, according to Linguists.

In the northeast region near New York, when one tells part of a story, others chime in to add more detail. This creates a sense of unity and bonding in that a group is telling the story together.

In the Midwest, stories are factual accounts of what occurred. Much unnecessary detail is added, such as the names of people that the listener doesn’t know or places that the listener has never heard of in order to prove that the story is true. Exaggeration is seen as a lie and interrupting is considered very rude. This leads to the inference that people from the Midwest are more straight-forward and direct while people from the Northeast use exaggeration and sarcasm more often.

All in all, language does not force people to think in a certain way, but it does encourage us to think in a certain way.

-Daniel Nakla

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