Sciency Words: Linguistic Relativity

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Okay, I know you’ve seen every single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, just like I have, so I’m sure you remember the one about Riva.  He was the deaf and mute ambassador who communicated with the help of three telepathic interpreters.

In that episode, we’re told that Riva has quite a reputation for his peacemaking skills.  He’s such a famous peacemaker that, at one point, Lieutenant Worf has this to say about him:

Linguistic relativity (a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is the idea that the language you speak shapes your thoughts.  Language molds your mind and influences your perception of the world in subtle yet profound ways.

For example, if you’re a Klingon and your language has no word for “peacemaker,” how would you ever talk to your fellow Klingons about making peace?  Could you even conceptualize, in your own mind, what peacemaking would be?  It would be difficult for some, and nearly impossible for others.  Thus we can see how the limitations of a language can limit the thinking both of individuals and of an entire society.

American anthropologist Edward Sapir was not the first person to suggest that language molds our minds in this way, but he was the first to try putting some science behind the idea with this 1929 paper on the Hopi (a Native American tribe) and their language.  Then in 1940, Benjamin Whorf published this paper expanding on Sapir’s work with the Hopi and building on Sapir’s thoughts about language.  Sapir and Whorf never actually worked together, nor did they articulate their ideas as a formal hypothesis; even so, this concept is now commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

But linguistic relativity is, in my opinion, a far more apt term.  It’s obvious, if you read Whorf’s 1940 paper, that he’s borrowing concepts and terminology directly from Einstein and the theory of general relativity.  Just as you must account for your physical frame of reference when observing space-time events, you must also consider your linguistic frame of reference when examining psychological or sociological realities.

Over the years, I’ve seen and heard some pretty extreme claims related to linguistic relativity.  In some cases, these claims have bordered on racism (i.e. for reasons X, Y, and Z, Western European languages are superior, while other language groups are inferior).  So obviously, linguistic relativity can be a controversial subject. As part of my research for today’s post, I read this paper reviewing the origins and history of Sapir-Whorf/linguistic relativity, and I think one of the concluding remarks in that paper sums things up nicely:

Whorf may not have been right on all counts, but he was not wrong either.  The fact that language plays a role in shaping our thoughts, in modifying our perception and creating reality is irrefutable.

Personally, I can tell you that I’ve experienced some of the effects of linguistic relativity myself, many times over.  Every time I learn a new scientific term, I feel like a Klingon who just found out what a peacemaker is.  Sometimes, the change is small; other times, it feels like a major paradigm shift.  My mind seems to open up to new possibilities, and I find that I can conceptualize the world around me in a whole new way.

In my experience, learning new vocabulary (scientific vocabulary or otherwise) is the absolute best kind of learning.  And that, my friends, is why I write this Sciency Words series.

P.S.: If you watch that episode of Star Trek, you’ll note that Mr. Worf puts a lot of stank on the word “peacemaker,” suggesting that while the Klingons do have a word for that now, it’s a pejorative term.  The pejoration or amelioration of a word can also have subtle but profound effects on your thinking as an individual and on the collective thinking of a society.

11 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Linguistic Relativity

  1. This makes a lot of sense when you consider what language is, the translation of mental states into symbols, the transmission of those symbols to someone else (talking), and the translation of those symbols back into mental states. Of course, for the listener to do that translation, the base terms must refer to mental states they recognize and had previously associated with that word.

    Where Sapir-Whorf makes sense is in the particular combinations that might arise in a language, the association between mental states, associations that might not occur in other cultures. So maybe the Klingons would have had a word for “peace” and another word for “maker”, but the idea of putting those together didn’t organically arise in their culture. (“Weapon maker” would probably be a very different case.)

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    1. Makes sense to me. The Klingons must, at the very very least, have a word for “not currently fighting.” I think what Sapir-Whorf gets wrong is that we can experience a mental state without having a word for it. We’ve all had those “gosh, there should be a word for this” moments.

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      1. Yes, I agree that “what Sapir-Whorf gets wrong is that we can experience a mental state without having a word for it…”. Indeed in the Star Trek example, it is the telepathy that is the core language which is the language of the subconscious mind which sometimes breaks through to the conscious observing mind (like in, but not limited to, the dream-maker who seems to act independently from the conscious mind). A “vision” that a psychic has is a metaphorical language that she is sometimes forced to explain in words to a person who can not directly share the “vision.” When you explain a new concept to someone and they understand it in an “aha” moment, that moment could be assigned a “word”. The naming of the word is not always undertaken however, nor learned by others. But what I’ve just said is concept (ME-2/13) or “D-psy-ism”. At the moment it is the vocabulary of two people.

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      2. Words can be such imprecise tools for communicating ideas. Even simple ideas can get muddled up. If I tell you I saw a cat stuck in a tree, you will almost certainly not picture the same cat that I’m picturing, nor the same tree, nor even the same scenario for how the cat may have gotten into the tree. How much harder, then, it must be to explain complex spiritual experiences or philosophical beliefs.

        And yet, despite all the problems verbal communication has, it’s often the best thing we’ve got. So we have to try our best to explain ourselves as clearly as we can.


  2. I fear that once again the politicians are going to destroy a word through pejoration. They keep scolding us with the phrase “Follow the science: ‘follow the science, close restaurants,’ or ‘open(close) schools, or ‘follow the science, restrict travel, wear 1, 2, or 3 masks.’ I suppose there is a “science” to manipulation and propaganda, but nevertheless this totally destroys the original meaning of “science“. For myself, I’m forced to think about “real science” like an equation in physics, “toy science” like the watered down version taught to little kids, and “amoral science” for gene-splicing to make better soldiers or “gain-of-function virology” for germ-warfare couched in plausible deniability. “Follow the science” sometimes means “shut-up and obey because you’re too stupid to understand.”

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    1. Have you read any of Ben Goldache’s work? I think you’d find his stuff interesting. He wrote a book that I absolutely love called “I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That.” The basic thesis is that scientific research gets dumbed down in schools, or by the popular press, to the point that the general public is left woefully misinformed about how science actually works.

      Goldacre also wrote two books called “Bad Science” and “Bad Pharma,” which I have yet to read, but I’m under the impression that they make similar points. I believe “A Bit More Complicated” is out of print, so it might be kind of hard to find at this point, but “Bad Science” and “Bad Pharma” are probably still easy to get.

      He also writes a column for the Guardian about science gone wrong:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks. Sounds interesting. It always seems a bit more complicated to the point that it’s so tangled in subtlety that I can only suspect that higher math is a form of deliberate obfuscation. I was thinking about how pure “randomness” can’t be possible as an absolute limit in a thought experiment. An event has to appear to be random because we don’t know all the parameters and forces that govern its behavior. I might rest an object on a shelf where it doesn’t move for years. One day it falls off despite there being no measurable forces applied. But it could turn out that every morning or blue Tuesday, a delivery truck goes down the street and makes the house vibrate a little, and after several years a butterfly lands on the shelf attracted by the oils in a fingerprint. It starts a migration of oil that after several more years lubricates the object enough to reduce the coefficient of friction so that it can at last fall off the shelf when a window is opened etc. They say that radioactive decay is random. But they guess that the strong force is created by an interchange of “gluons” in the nucleus. “At random” something goes wrong with the stability of the nucleus and there is an emission etc… However, when we talk about chemical bonds that involve the interchange of electrons, the reaction occurs and is driven at a particular temperature, pressure, structure, location,with catalysts etc. The conditions can be imagined to be knowable and not random. The locations and forces can be imagined to exist down to the last butterfly so that all of them, in principle, are not random (and that would include waveforms etc.) Yeah, I know, nevermind: science says that math says that it’s so. Simon says do this: science says “do the math”. I like the example of taking a recording of traffic noise. If you have a big enough collection of tiny and huge tubas and violins with their volumes adjusted right, you could create a sound sample identical to the traffic noise. You might tell an outsider that the sound was created by tubas and violins, and that would be true in a mathematical sense, but it doesn’t change the fact that the sound was created by cars, buses, taxis, and trucks.

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      2. There’s actually a weird scientific term for what you’re describing: stochastic. The existence of this word is often cited as an example of obfuscation by technical jargon, i.e. “If you mean something is random, just say it’s random rather than using this other weird word.”

        But saying something is stochastic is not exactly the same as saying it’s random. In principle, a stochastic event is entirely predictable, if only we had enough data. But in practice, stochastic events are effectively random (from our human point of view) because we cannot realistically collect enough data about all the forces at work in any given scenario.

        This is in contrast to things that are truly random, like radioactive decay. There’s no way to predict, even in principle, when a radioactive nucleus will decay. That’s one of the reasons why it has been so hard to reconcile the world of quantum mechanics with the world of classical physics. And for quantum physicists, a lot of the time they just “do the math” because there’s no better way for them to do their work, at least not until the day comes when quantum physics and classical physics are reconciled in a so-called “theory of everything.”

        There are absolutely times when scientists (and non-scientists) will throw a bunch of math at you, or some weird technical jargon as well, to cover up the fact that they really don’t know what they’re talking about. But there are also cases where technical jargon has subtle flavors of meaning that more conventional language is missing, and there are times when high level math is really the only tool we have for figuring stuff out. The trick is knowing the difference between when this sort of stuff is necessary and when it’s being used as a distraction.

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  3. Worf living in the Federation and serving in Starfleet of course helped him to ingest the term not possible for other Klingons. Given how his character evolved, it’s hard to believe the Worf of the DS9 era didn’t understand or appreciate what a peacemaker was. But it’s not hard to imagine the Klingons like Gowron or even Marok truly understood it, outside the need for political lip service.

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  4. Fantastic idea to present such a content more specific for a group specializing in linguistics. My first reading post of yours and I’m impressed😮 Great sharer of wisdom with the whole and just word.readers.


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