The Link Between Language and the Perception of Reality

Although all observers may be confronted by the same physical evidence in the form of experiential data and although they may be capable of “externally similar acts of observation,” a person’s “picture of the universe” or “view of the world” differs as a function of the particular language or languages that person knows.   (Lee 1996, page 87)

First you have to claw your way through the linguistic thicket created by the academic register in which that quotation is written. Why is it written like that? One of the rules of the Academic Regalian register is that the more you expect other academics to be opposed to what you’re saying or wanting, the more extreme your use of the register has to he. This is unfortunate, because controversial subjects are also subjects about which it’s important to be as clear as possible. But if the academic game is the game you’re playing, clarity has to be sacrificed to this linguistic dominance display.

The translation process introduces a delay, certainly; but when you get to the end of it you will realize that you’ve cone upon a concept so interesting that it grips the mind and won’t let go. It’s called “the linguistic relativity hypothesis” (also “the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” and “the Whorf/Whorfian hypothesis”). Lee’s quotation says that the way human beings perceive the world around them varies with the languages they know — even though they perceive the same things, in the same manner, using the same physical and mental “equipment.” This will strike you either as common sense or non-sense, depending on your own personal convictions about the power of language.

Linguist Dan Moonhawk Alford offers the example of a Cheyenne parent who is sitting with a child on his knee when a hall suddenly bounces across the floor An English-speaking parent would say to the child, “Look! Ball!” The Cheyenne parent, Alford tells us, would say, “Look! Bouncing!” (in DellaFlora 1998). Both parents are perceiving the same stimulus, with the same sensory equipment. However, the way they express the perception — which tells the child what it’s important to pay attention to — is not the same.

In 1958 Ace Books published Jack Vance’s science fiction novel The Languages of Pao, in which a government tailored its population for specific roles in adulthood by controlling the language each person learned in infancy. One group of infants learned a native tongue that fitted them for life in the military, another group learned a language designed for business and trade, and so on. This worked very well — until the government was overthrown by a population that had secretly learned more than one of these designer tongues natively and had therefore grown up with more flexible perceptions of reality.

The Languages of Pao is a straightforward presentation of a fictional world having these three characteristics:

A. The linguistic relativity hypothesis is valid and true.

B. The hypothesis can be systematically applied to human life.

C. The government has the power and resources to carry out that systematic application as a national policy, beginning with its population of infants.

Whether (a) and (b) are true in this nonfictional world that we all live in is a matter for fierce dispute; I am firmly convinced that they are. Because we know of no government in human history that has met the specifications for (c), it’s difficult even to speculate about the truth or falsity of that proposition; in the novel, its truth is presupposed.

Suppose that the linguistic relativity hypothesis is true in the real world. Suppose we could prove that languages actually do have significant control over the worldviews of their speakers. What would that mean?

There are two major possibilities. If we assume that a multiplicity of worldviews causes disunity in a society, it would mean that we could make a strong case for the proposition that multilingualism at a national level is dangerous and should be discouraged, even forbidden. (This idea is in many ways at the heart of the various “English Only” movements in the United States, although many of their proponents are unfamiliar with the linguistic relativity hypothesis.) On the other hand, we could assume that the more worldviews people have, the better; in that case, the validity of the linguistic relativity hypothesis would let us make a case for strong support of multilingualism. (This would be my personal choice.)

In addition, we would be able to make the case that letting a government decide which language or languages people will learn is dangerous, since that would mean that their government dictated their view of the world for them. Clearly, both life and government policy would be less complicated if we could be certain that the hypothesis is false.

The linguistic relativity hypothesis (LRH, from now on) is a source of controversy in many fields, including at least linguistics, anthropology and ethnology; philosophy, religion, political science and education. It’s not a new idea; it goes back at least as far as Giambattista Vico, who lived from J668 to 1774. Today it’s associated primarily with the work of linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, especially Whorf. Linguists accuse one another of being “Whorfians,” acknowledge (like me) that they are Whorfians, or deny ever having been Whorfians, all with an astonishing degree of passion.

From The Language Imperative

Perseus Books
Spring 2000
ISBN 0-7382-0254-1