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.