CWA: Your language is your worldview

CWA is the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now in it's 63rd year, the conference brings together scientists, politicians, activists, journalists, artists, and more for a week of fascinating conversations. It's free, and open to the public. Think of CWA as the democratic version of TEDtalks. I'm at the conference all this week and will be posting about some of the interesting things that I learn.

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In English, we use "I am" statements to describe our current biological state, things that are happening to us, or events that we are experiencing. We say, "I am hungry." We say, "I am dying."

But that's not how it works in Irish. Yesterday, during a panel called There's Perception, and Then There's Reality, Irish storyteller Clare Murphy talked briefly about how the language you speak alters the way that you perceive the world. The Irish equivalents of "I am hungry" and "I am dying", for example, would literally translate into English as, "Hunger is upon me" and "Death is beside me."

I was a little disappointed that this topic wasn't explored further during the panel session, but the cool thing about the Conference on World Affairs is that the conversations I have outside the panels are every bit as interesting as the official discussions.

Over the course of the day on Monday, I spoke with several people—panelists, as well as conference volunteers and organizers—about the links between language and worldview. In one of those conversations, Emily Gunther, a conference volunteer and sign language interpreter, told me about some of the ways that Deaf culture and American Sign Language intertwine.

One of the most interesting things Gunther told me about: A lot of hearing people often describe Deaf people as "rude". Not because of how the deaf communicate, but because of what they say.

Unless they're born into a Deaf family, Gunther told me, most deaf people grow up being at least somewhat excluded from the spoken conversations going on around them. Someone may translate for them, but details are often left out—especially when hearing people try to be socially polite.

Think of all the times we try to describe a person without talking about a characteristic that we're worried it might be offensive to mention. A big schnoz becomes, "You know, that guy. You'll know him when you see him." If your friend shows up with too much makeup on, you might say, "Wow, you're really dressed up today."

It's difficult to translate that unspoken context that ASL without just saying, "That guy who has a big nose." Or, "You're wearing too much makeup." Because of that&mash;and because a lifetime of exclusion from hearing conversations has made many deaf people wary of leaving out information—it's completely normal within Deaf culture to just say things that come off as rude to the hearing.

Image: Some rights reserved by The Accent


  1. Thanks for tying the issue back to marginalization, Maggie, I think the discussion would be incomplete without making that point clear!

    Does CWA offer documentation of the presentations? I poked around the website but couldn’t find any audio or video offered for download.

    1. Philosophy of Language is interesting but ultimately utterly useless in the real world. Except for those who want to get paid for thinking about the Philosophy of Language of course.

      Applied Linguistics (and even Linguistics) is far more useful.

      1. I tend to disagree: There’s no such thing as science without philosophy. Philosophy of language is highly useful, so long as its combined with quality linguistic work. Without it, you get into muck like this article and half the comments.

  2. While I think there may be lots to the notion that our language affects our perception (Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, anyone?), I’m a little confused about what this article is saying. How do the Irish “Hunger is upon me” and “Death is beside me” affect their perceptions? That part of the story seems to be missing.

    Italians, likewise, say “I have hunger” instead of “I am hungry,” but I don’t know that that affects their perceptions at all.

    I guess we had to see the talk.

    1. > How do the Irish “Hunger is upon me” and “Death is beside me”
      > affect their perceptions? That part of the story seems to be
      > missing.

      > Italians, likewise, say “I have hunger” instead of
      > “I am hungry,” but I don’t know that that affects their
      > perceptions at all.

      I think the difference is I vs me
      “I’m hungry” or “I have hunger” indicates that that’s something internal to myself. The wording also indicates that I’m “actively” involved in this condition.
      “Hunger is upon me” indicates that the state is external to me. The wording makes me a passive participant in the hunger condition, as if the condition is happening to me.

      I didn’t read the article or view the video.

      my guess is that if we pharse something as internal/active, we “view” it as something that we have the power to change. OTOH, if something is external and happening passively, we may view it as a state that’s not entirely in our control.

  3. It’s a tough call, though, to claim that English-speakers and Irish-speakers experience hunger as substantively different, despite the different linguistic constructions of the same: ditto for the Frenchman who “has hunger” (J’ai faim). I’m not sure we’ve worked out a cognitive-linguistic model for how each statement “feels” to a speaker, and what cultural and other worldview each bespeaks, despite how each statement “reads” to its audience. Was anything said on this point?

    1. I wonder how this apies to us Germans. ’cause we can say

      “Ich bin hungrig” – “I am hungry”


      “Ich habe Hunger” – “I have hunger(noun)”

  4. The hearing impaired example seems to have nothing much to do with language and much more to do with sociology to me.

  5. Well it certainly can be observed that different cultures- roughyl delineated by language, seem to view things a certain way, as a group. As a result I’ve often wondered how much the structure of the language is a factor.

  6. Uhhh, yeeeahhh, no.

    Per SamSam, Whorf-Sapir discredited long ago. Japanese has no future tense, but this has no bearing on speakers of Japanese being able to make plans, or talk about future events…

    Phraseology does not equal absolute perception. A German speaker saying “Ich habe Hunger” is (functionally) saying the same thing as an English speaker saying “I am hungry,” or the Irish Gaelic speaker saying ‘hunger is upon’ him-or-her.

  7. The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (what is being stated in the headline) is pretty much discounted by scholars now. Even the weak version is doubtful except in a few very specific cases.

    The problem is that while your language may not express something exactly the same as another, that doesn’t mean you can’t express what the other language is expressing, or that you can’t concieve of it, you just have to use different words.

    The ASL example here is driven by sociolinguistic context and culture, not the actual language, so I fail to see what it even has to do with the headline.

  8. Neat.I’m in a tutor writing course, and we just touched on deaf culture. I always took the banging on the counter as a sign of impatience when I worked in retail, but just learned that it can mean that the topic is changing, or that there is a point they want to emphasize coming up. Thanks for the archives link James David.

  9. zuludaddy: Whorf-Sapir was about whether language limits *sensory* perception — e.g., if a tribe’s language has only two color words, will members be less adept at distinguishing colors than someone whose language has several hundred.

    This article is about something slightly more subtle: language shaping thought. Think Orwell and Newspeak.

  10. The English idiom, ‘the facts of life’, euphemizing the physiological processes of reproduction, can be found in Spanish as ‘los misterios de la vida’ which translates to ‘the mysteries of life’. To borrow the terminology from a previous poster, both idioms function identically, in that they both refer to the same processes, but do so in two very different conceptual spaces. It is here, in these conceptual spaces created by language, that our culture, worldview, ideology or what have ya is circumscribed.

    1. > these conceptual spaces created by language

      _that’s_what sapir-whorf’s all about…and i think it is exemplified by the uniphonic languages such as spanish: if there’s_ONE_WAY_to say something, it predisposes an authoritarian mindset:-( just take a look @ the history of latin america…& it was the_spanish_inquisition, after all;-)

  11. Can I go all paleogrammarian and suggest that “it’s” be changed to “it’s” in the first line? Also if &mash; could be changed to — maybe that would put all this hunger talk to rest.

  12. I’m inclined to agree with others that the example given in the BoingBoing summary is a shallow one with little demonstrative ability with regards to how language frames one’s thinking.

    George Orwell, once a proponent of Basic English, turned 180 degrees on the proposal, and invented Newspeak in his novel “1984.”

    My own thoughts on the subject lately have centered around the history and the future of the term “terrorism,” which I feel has joined the ranks of terms such as “national security” as terms that obscure meaning rather than illuminate it.

    Recently, DDoS protests over Wikileaks service terminations have been described as “terrorism” by a number of source. Joe Biden has referred to Julian Assange as “a high tech terrorist.”

    One thing that seems to happen is the mainstream media choose the terms we will use to discuss certain subjects.

    The term “socialism” took on a very different meaning after the Cold War, and is today used along with terms such as “wealth redistribution” to define the mental framework for thinking about our economic stability.

  13. I’m not sure I buy that the language you speak defines your world view. However, to some extent language mirrors a culture or society. A common example: in British English you earn money, in America you make money, in German you deserve money and in French you win money.

    Also, what about those who speak more than one language and often three or four on a daily basis? Does this mean that we don’t have a worldview at all? ;-) I for one don’t think that I get confused about the meaning of hunger when I speak Japanese or English instead of German.

    1. Ah, but Germans are well aware of the act that “verdienen” covers two concepts covered by “deserve” and “earn” in English – many jokes concerning salaries make use of that.

      I have yet to meet a German who could not differentiate between “Ich verdiene 1000 Euro im Monat ” ( I make 1000 Euros a month) and “Ich verdiene eine bessere Behandlung” (I deserve better treatment), for example. Certainly many more do not clearly distingush between “Furcht” (fear) und “Angst” (well, angst :-) )

      1. Sure, everybody knows what common idioms and expressions mean. Point is, there’s probably a cultural reason that the German word “verdienen” is used for “earn money”, as in: you deserve to receive money in exchange for your work. Same holds true for other languages if you look at what the original meaning of “make,” “earn” or “gagner” are.

        1. “Verdienen” is a rightful claim – one can get this by work-for-hire (usually rewarded by money) or valor (usually rewarded wirh a handshake and a shiny metal), etc, and so. I really see no significant difference to the usage in America – after all, Americans not only make money, they earn it, too. In contemporary, casual parlance Germans also “kriegen Geld”, “get money”, which implies compensation of a debt.

          Language plays a part in cultural differences, but imho it’s mostly reflective and the constraints are very lose.

    2. i think the american usage is a misnomer:-( “make money” implies “create value”: a contractor takes a pile of lumber & builds a house…he has created value…as an engineer, i would say he’s decreased entropy…and has earned any profit.

      but when a speculator flips a house for a profit, i object to the idea that he has “made money”: he hasn’t created value, decreased entropy, he’s simply transferred wealth into his pocket…the same can be said of the stock market)-:

      while i’m a big proponent of the free market (properly regulated to ensure it’s equally free, unlike what scott walker’s trying to do in minn)-: it seems to me that economic analysis needs to use the mathematics that have made the modern world possible: complex arithmetic;-)

      e.g.: say it costs $5 to make, deliver & sell a pair of jeans for $10…put a designer label that costs $1 on the pocket, & u can get $50…currently profit is taxed on the simple arithmetic difference: $5 & $45.

      i think the market price should be a vector on the complex plane, with the cost plotted on the x (real, entropy-decreasing) axis, and taxation based on the appropriated-named imaginary y-axis;-)

  14. Regarding Irish: the phrase “hunger is upon me” is roughly equivalent to the Italian/French phrases literally meaning “I have hunger”. This is because Irish lacks a specific verb “to have”, and uses “upon me” to express this concept. This does not only apply to concepts, like hunger, but to objects; e.g., one would say the equivalent of “A book is upon me” for “I have a book”. I’m not sure how this affects the argument that language shapes worldview, but it’s important to note anyway, if only to show that this phrase is not isolated, but exists within a larger syntactic structure.
    Practically speaking, even if it were the case that this Irish usage altered one’s perception of hunger or death, the case is moot, as there are no Irish speakers alive today who are not also bilingual in English.

  15. I remember learning about aspect while studying NT Greek. The professor found it very difficult to describe the concept in English because nothing like it really exists in the English language. My worldview, shaped by the English language, prevented me from grasping it fully.

  16. Instead of “I was a little disappointed that this topic wasn’t explored further…”, the better way of conveying this would be “Upon seeing that this topic was not explored further, disappointment was upon me…”

    This re-thinking & re-examining of theses subtle yet important differences need to come to fruition in our language. This is overdue.

  17. This question is very much an active subject of debate (and has been at varying levels of intensity for the past 60 years). The question underlying the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis (does language affect/determine the way we think?) is interesting but very nuanced: just as a place to start, think about defining ‘language’ (separate from ‘culture’), then define ‘thought’. Good luck.

    Chomsky-style linguists (such as Pinker cited above: have long talked how language and thought are independent; this is because of the way they conceptualize language itself, as basically an common capacity (Chomsky’s famous metaphor is to think of the ‘language faculty’ as an organ) shared by all humans, with the differences we notice across languages only a matter of details. Given that viewpoint, it would be silly to think of different languages having anything but minor effects on cognition.

    Recent challenges from researchers such as Boroditsky ( and Levinson ( are coming from a perspective that challenges this basic Chomskiam assumption that language itself is ‘universal’. Crudely sumarizing, the idea instead is that it’s the human brain itself that’s universal, and all the languages we see are actually independent solutions to communication given the same engineering constraints. Given this perspective, it becomes a very natural question to ask.

    All in all, the data so far is messy (surprise surprise). The jury is still out, folks. Like a child of divorced parent, I’m sympathetic to both sides and constantly caught in the middle.

    It’s a great question, but like many of the big ones in science, very hard to ask.

  18. Hm, I suppose that in Irish, instead of “I am an idiot” one might say “Idiocy is upon me”, which, at least from the English side, is better than actually being an idiot. Here at the office I often find prodigious amounts of idiocy upon me, though that condition usually isn’t my fault.

  19. I’m willing to give MKB the benefit of the doubt. It IS a fascinating topic.

    However, instead of saying the language you speak alters the way that you perceive the world, I would say the language you speak influences the construction of personal identity and the experience of self.

    I think the Irish examples support that hypothesis.

  20. Sigh. This just never seems to go away. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (certainly its strong form) is like astrology: it all sounds magical and hippy-dippy, and then you realize you’re not doing science. Linguistics, like all scientific disciplines, is plenty amazing without making silly “but is your blue truly MY blue, man?” conjectures. Take long-distance dependencies, for example: Or, really, anything that has to do with language modeling, which is certainly of interest to the programmers among us.

    1. beep1o:

      Applied Linguistics (and even Linguistics) is far more useful.

      Well that would be why it’s called APPLIED Linguistics, right?


      So you agree with beep1o, huh? Philosophy of Language is just silly conjecture because it’s hard (if not impossible) to test empirically?

      (Also, Your Blue My Blue? Nice straw man, man.)

      1. (Also, Your Blue My Blue? Nice straw man, man.)

        Straw man? It’s the central issue – do people who speak languages which distinguish between for instance teal and navy, and people who speak languages that only have blue, perceive the color differently as a result?

        1. Anon #41

          It’s unfair to reduce a wide field to just color-perception studies because it’s possible that color perception interacts with language differently than do other cognitive processes.

          “Psycholinguistic studies have since gone far beyond color perception (although that is still studied), having explored motion perception, emotion perception, object representation, and memory. The gold standard of psycholinguistic studies on linguistic relativity is now finding cognitive differences in speakers of different language when no language is involved in an experimental task (thus rendering inapplicable Pinker’s claim that linguistic relativity is absurd because it is “circular”)”

          -From the Wikipedia entry on Linguistic Relativity

      2. Hardly a straw man. Have you ever tried teaching linguistics to literature or anthropology majors? You’d understand what I’m talking about.

        And no, you’ve got it backwards, kinda. Philosophy of language, applied linguistics, and theoretical linguistics all are eating from the same trough. But this “your language is your worldview” stuff is a product of sloppy application of a couple of Sapir’s theories about the relationship between language and thought. I suspect it gained popularity when adopted by cultural theorists and postmodernists (language creates our reality! Derrida! Shrouded in mystery!), and over the past couple of decades keeps popping up in ridiculous examples (e.g., that Hopi speakers have a different concept of time (!) because of their language’s lack of tense morphemes).

        1. Here are two reasons I find myself committed to the tenants of Sapir-Whorf that seem to be floating around the popular culture.

          Let’s say a woman is very sad and goes in to see a psychologist. She says, “I am sad.”

          “Aha,” says the therapist. “Instead of saying ‘I am sad,’ I would like you to say, from now on, ‘sadness is upon me.’ Why? Because when you say I am sad, you are relating very deeply to your sadness, the same way you relate deeply to your name, for example. But when you say sadness is upon me, the sadness can be thought of as more superficial, like clothes you put on and take off.”

          This type of psycho-therapy happens and it may or may not be bull shit. I am submitting the example as either a cause or an effect of Sapir-Whorf thinking trickling into the popular culture.

          Here’s another phenomenon I think pervades in the popular mythology:

          Let’s say I am a native English speaker and I learn Spanish. When I speak Spanish, I feel a different attitude. I feel like a different part of myself is expressed.

          Popular culture suggests my feelings when speaking Spanish come strictly from the language interacting with my vocal apparatus (including the brain).

          But the linguists here would suggest otherwise, right? That the difference in feeling when going from one language to another has more to do with a range of cultural phenomenon beyond strictly the language?

          Is Sapir-Whorf empirically testable?

  21. Goooood, Boingboing. Dragging out the old-wives’ tales about language (Sapir-Whorf?? In 2011? REALLY??) because you haven’t thought critically about it. Way to report science, there.

    Language stuff always brings out the amateur, arm-chair philosopher types. You guys think that because you USE language you UNDERSTAND language. But you don’t. Not any more than the fact that you’re furiously copying DNA right now makes you an expert in microbiology. Not any more than the fact that you’re digesting your lunch makes you an expert in nutrition and anatomy. Not any more than the fact that you drive your car to work every day makes you an expert in automechanics.

    But what do I know? I just have a PhD in theoretical linguistics.

    Power to the amateurs, I guess.

    1. Imagine. Arm-chair philosophy types on a discussion forum. Color me surprised.

      You think you know so much about amateurs, but you don’t. *sticks tongue out*

    2. Wow, sounds like you’ve half-read your Heidegger!

      Why would one’s use of language prevent an understanding of the same? Isn’t our use of language our main means of coming to understand it? Can one stand outside of language, or speak objectively about it using tools that aren’t somehow linguistic, symbolic, etc.? One needn’t have a degree to ask these rather obvious questions….

    3. You guys think that because you USE language you UNDERSTAND language.

      And you seem to think that, because you can type, you have something to say.

      1. “You guys think that because you USE language you UNDERSTAND language.”

        Perhaps he confuses language and drugs:

        You guys think that because you USE drugs you UNDERSTAND drugs.

        Or pain, even:

        You guys think that because you SUFFER pain you UNDERSTAND pain.

        Or life….

        You guys think that because you LIVE you UNDERSTAND life.

        I love language….but “understand” it?…well….more like “understudy” it, maybe.

        1. I suppose that one’s language would determine the limits of one’s speechlessness, eh what?

          I mean, if you lack the words, what are you going to say?

        2. Language is not just up to any one of us to determine.

          Language is quintessentially social, whatever “quintessentially” may mean….no wait that’s not quite right, is it?

          My o my but I am a silly bunt sometimes.

    4. “You guys think that because you USE language you UNDERSTAND language. But you don’t.”

      Um, there are 65 comments here. Whom are you addressing? Everyone? Just yourself?

      And then, rather than proving your point with argument, you just rattle off a bunch of inept comparisons. “Just like a monkey doesn’t understand his monkey sounds, you don’t understand your human sounds, you amateur!”

      I don’t know where you got your degree in theoretical linguistics, but if your comment gives even a hint of the intellectual rigor required by the program you went through, I wouldn’t be surprised if your classes were routinely held in a van.

  22. (Note: I’m hearing and I don’t claim to speak for all Deaf people; I’m just reporting what some Deaf people have said about Deaf culture.)

    In general, Deaf culture places a very high value on information – much of that is a reaction to being left out of conversations, as you mention, and another part is historical. Deaf people, being a minority and marginalized group, have a history of being taken advantage of by hearing people who think that being Deaf equals being stupid. This is why a Deaf person might ask, upon seeing your new car, “How much did that cost?” In mainstream American culture, that would be rude and intrusive, but the idea here is that the Deaf person is using a personal connection to compare what they might have been told by a car dealership. The more information that everyone has about what the going rate for cars is, the better chance the community has to get a fair deal. Same with wages – if everyone openly shares what they make, then you can gauge if you are being paid fairly.

    With the comments on physical appearance, there are several things going on here. One, it’s obvious to everyone that your friend has a big nose, so why not just say so? Your friend isn’t stupid. Two, you should notice things about your friends because it means you care. The classic example is a Deaf person exclaiming to a friend, “Wow! You’ve gotten fat!” This isn’t rude because it means that you care enough to notice changes in your friend’s appearance. If you didn’t say anything, it would mean you didn’t care.

  23. > Japanese has no future tense, but this has no bearing
    > on speakers of Japanese being able to make plans,
    > or talk about future events…

    Maybe not. But Japanese also doesn’t require identification of the subject of a sentence to the extent that English does, and this difference profoundly affects the way information can be communicated in Japanese as opposed to English.

    It’s much more difficult to express, for example, ambiguity in possession of feeling states in English than in Japanese- in English we can say “I’m angry” or “You’re angry” or “We’re angry” or “The barren land looks angry”, but it’s very difficult for us to say them all at once, leaving open the possibility that we mean or don’t mean any one or any combination of them, whereas in Japanese that’s very easy to do, and is done extensively as part of the normative ground of how information is perceived.

    Of course it’s easy to make chicken/egg arguments about which came first, the language difference or the cultural difference, but really probably neither came first- they both grow together, changing and affecting each other along the way.

    1. Well, English can be ambiguous, it’s just that we aren’t taught how to be that ambiguous. We can say, “There is anger”, but it sounds slightly silly in a fantasy novel kind of way to our ears.

      Incidentally (to everyone else), the full form of the Japanese for “I am hungry” is “Stomach is hungry”, no definite or indefinite article, no possessive, just ‘stomach’. Make something of that, Sapir-Worf fans.

    2. > in English we can say “I’m angry” or “You’re angry” or “We’re angry” or
      > “The barren land looks angry”, but it’s very difficult for us to say them
      > all at once, leaving open the possibility that we mean or don’t mean any
      > one or any combination of them,

      “You and I look at this barren land, and there’s a lot of anger.”


  24. I’d never heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis until reading this thread, but I find it highly amusing that so many commenters are screaming about its invalidity when it appears it is neither a proper hypothesis, nor an idea that either Sapir or Whorf specifically stated.

    Nor is it even mentioned in the original article! :P

    1. It’s like “copyright violation” and “theft”, or “hacking” and “cracking”. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (and that’s what it became known as) gets us all equally riled up, it’s just that it doesn’t come up very often. But when it does… duck!

    2. “Your language is your worldview” is close enough to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as usually quoted to make the connection. Your language influences your worldview might do better.

  25. “A lot of hearing people often describe Deaf people as “rude”. Not because of how the deaf communicate, but because of what they say.”

    I noticed that with a deaf girl that I used to meet in my old chatroom (it was a private room for a group of Tolkien fans). Of course she typed like everybody else… but she was just so straigthforward with her statements and questions (e.g. direct comments about one’s sex life, LOL) that it made for some awkward moments.
    I always assumed that she had never learned to use the social “politeness veneer” that is so natural for most to use – at least in a chatroom with friends and acquaintances that maybe we don’t know _that_ well, and who are expecting to share light conversation about books, food and the like! It was weird but it also kept it interesting :-P

    Regarding the relationship between languages and perception, I have a feeling that the picture is much more complex… And fwiw, in Spanish we have a way of saying “I’m hungry” (Estoy hambrienta), but we use “I have hunger” (Tengo hambre) except in very formal or literary language.

    1. I used to work with someone like that; and to the best of my knowledge she was not in the least bit hearing impaired. She simply lacked that build-in “censor” that most of us have that prevents us from actually saying everything that happens to cross our minds without regard for how it will be taken by those around us. I think it has more to do with individual personality than with the need for clarity in communication. I’m not saying that deaf people aren’t more blunt than hearing people (I don’t personally know enough deaf people to make any generalizations of that sort); but I wouldn’t automatically assume that a person’s bluntness is causally related to his or her deafness. Some people are just nosy and rude by dint of their personality.

      1. FYI, there’s a difference between deaf and Deaf. Deaf with a small d just refers to hearing; Deaf with a big D is cultural. Not every deaf person is Deaf.

        1. Well, as far as I know, my former colleague was neither deaf nor Deaf. She was simply tactless and presumptuous. (And I don’t know whether the person Calimecita was talking about was Deaf or simply deaf; so I don’t want to leap to any conclusions.) I just know that there are a lot of rude people in the world – probably a lot more rude people than Deaf people or even deaf people – so I wouldn’t automatically assume that if a deaf/Deaf person is rude it’s because he or she is deaf/Deaf.

      2. Well, of course you’re right… I didn’t mean to reduce her (great) personality to this particular characteristic of hers.
        In fact, after reading Emily Gunther’s comment in Maggie’s account, I was left thinking how there’s no way for me to know what part of her “bluntness” (if any!) could be attributed to her being deaf. She’s not particularly nosy or rude (and I know plenty of people who are), the difference was… well, different and I don’t know how to describe it, but Gunther’s explanation just “rang a bell”. In any case, I don’t know other deaf people and I wouldn’t want to make any such generalizations.

        1. That should’ve been “built-in” of course. I gotta learn to proofread these things before posting them. :-)

  26. a knowledge of the cultural background helps understand the meaning beyond the mere mechanics of language. In Korean, someone may utter a statement like “I wish to die” and it has nothing to do with suicidal thoughts, merely a trite way to say saying “I’m so fed up”.

  27. I’m Deaf, and I can say that everything Gunther say is generally correct. But really, it depends if Deaf people are rude, is the environment that we grew up in. Like for example, I grew up in hearing environment with hearing family, because of this, I learned to be “polite” to the hearing crowd.

    Sorry if I’m not making any sense. And are there any transcripts for any sessions? CWA sound awesome.

  28. Here’s an example for you all to argue about.

    My son is on the autism spectrum, hence he tends to interpret language literally. He also has attentional problems.

    When told to pay attention he always resisted, because, as he explained to me recently “that means there is a cost”. He then described that cost in terms of personal loss: loss of the ideas he would come up with when his mind was freely wandering, or loss of the progress he would make on the subject he wanted to focus on (rather than what the teachers/lecturers wanted him to focus on).

    Later after some thought I drew on my memories of French from my school days. I said to him the French say “fait attention”, which translates as “make attention”. Straight away he saw the issue differently, and seems to be much better able to make attention in all aspects of his life.

    What made the difference seems to be where each turn of phrase (yes I am an amateur) locates attention: paying it (if you take that literally) locates attention outside of yourself, whereas making it locates it within yourself.

    Oh and by the way my eyes each see colours somwewhat differently. I have three versions of each shade of blue: left, right and both eyes together. Take that, hippie-haters :P

    1. > eyes each see colours somwewhat differently

      me 2! this proves that each of us inhabit our own unique world, given that each of us has unique sensory organs…

      we’ve always known that parallel universes exist: we call them “other people”;-)

  29. From

    “Currently a balanced view of linguistic relativity is espoused by most linguists holding that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes in non-trivial ways but that other processes are better seen as subject to universal factors”. Wow, you’d never have thunk that was the current consensus from the polarised rantings on this thread. Get a grip, people.

  30. as a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian, on the topic “how the language you speak alters the way that you perceive the world”, I find very amusing two characteristics of the English language:

    “I can’t swim” but, in reality, what is meant is “I don’t know how to swim”. In English you never admit not knowing something? You really ‘can’t’, but actually just because you don’t know how to.

    “Friends” have no gender, and you’re obliged to include a ‘him/her’ somewhere along the line. Not to mention these blurry lines when a “girlfriend/boyfriend” is just a friend, or a date. But, again, ‘date’ is something you jot down on your schedule. Not the specific and beautiful Portuguese word ‘Namorado (m)/Namorada (f)’ ([e]n-AMOR-ado; amor = love, in the word root), for this special someone you’re fervently kissing.

    It really does alter the way that you perceive the world…

  31. If you went into a grocery store and went up and down the aisles picking out everything you don’t want, would the end result be that the items left would be what you do want? No one shops that way. But a huge portion of the populating have no problem telling everyone what they don’t want instead of what they do want. I learned this lesson once during a Thanksgiving dinner. Asked, “What do you want?” At 7 I answered “I don’t want peas, I don’t want carrots or spinach souffle. And then my grandmother started listing everything on the table, This? This? This? No, No, No. Finally my Grandfather had enough and simply asked, “Tell me what you want” “I want something that tastes good.” “Well, what tastes good to you”? “Biscuits with honey”. “Well, why didn’t you just say I want biscuits with honey? That way you might get what you want but more importantly we would know what you want. We don’t need to know what you don’t want.”

  32. I really like the directness of sign language. A friend recently took a course in Auslan (Australian Sign Language), and showed us the signs for different Australian cities and different countries. A lot of it would seem very insensitive without the explanation that as a visual language a lot of it is based on sight! My friend’s teacher also explained that in Deaf culture it is also considered rude not to notice changes of appearance, like weight gain.

    I’ve also attended rallies in support for marriage equality where the speeches have been translated into Auslan. The signs for concepts such as “prejudice” were fantastic, and seemed a lot more forceful than the English equivalents.

  33. Strong Sapir-Whorf seems to rely on the idea that I can’t think without using words. Which is plain silly; try telling that to a meditation class.

    OTOH it seems bloody obvious to me that if the only language you know makes it difficult to express a certain concept, then you will have more trouble expressing that concept — even to yourself.

    Symbols are a shortcut to cognition; “I am” is just a symbol when you get down to it. If your language uses “I am” to express personal identity (“I am human”) AND personal circumstance (“I am unemployed”) then you are likely to habitually group those two rather different concepts together at a basic level.

    Plus, remember how we learn our first language — by example, at the same time as we are making sense of the world. We use language as part of that process, and that means that any assumptions that are built into our language are likely to become our assumptions, too.

  34. As someone posted earlier part of the “rudeness” hearing individuals see in the way the Deaf communicate and describe individuals has to do with environment in which they are raised. Also, keep in mind that American Sign Language is a visual language, therefore identifying people by physical characteristics is often the easiest way to identify someone or some thing. My Name Sign in ASL is partly the sign for “short hair” because I was the only girl with a buzz cut. One of the teachers I worked with, his name sign was based around a large scar on his forehead. And it’s simply how you describe people. ‘You know, the girl with the frizzy, curly hair …” or “The teacher with the limp…” because it is the most linguistically efficient way to identify an individual without confusion. Yes, when translated from ASL to English we see these descriptions as uncouth and rude, but it is indeed an example of language shaping your world.

  35. I think the examples about sign language clearly and beautifully illustrate how your native language informs your experience of the world.

    You can’t speak a foreign language by just translating things.
    You need to learn about the foreign culture, in order to communicate.

    Language can’t merely be described as technology.
    It is also a storage method for fluid cultural and historical context, ideas and images.
    You can’t speak, sign or write without hearing the echos of the people who came before you.

    1. Or you could look at history as a whole, and notice that Spain has no more tendency towards authoritarian than France or Germany. These cherry-picked examples are why Sapir-Whorf got a bad name in the first place.

  36. I’m not a professional linguist, just an amateur language lover and observer of human behavior, so feel free to take what I have to say with a grain of salt. But I tend to view the premise of linguistic relativity (i.e. Sapir-Whorf and related ideas) in much the same way that I view the premise of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology:

    It seems to make a lot of prima facie sense, but it’s really hard to test empirically; some people want to use it to make sweeping claims that can’t be supported with hard evidence, while others want to dismiss it entirely as pseudoscience or complete nonsense; and people’s opinions of it seem to have little to do with the findings of experimental research, and everything to do with how well it fits into their own worldview.

    I’ve heard lots of critics – including many professional linguists – dismiss the idea of linguistic relativity as something that has been completely discredited. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t actually been falsified by experimental research; it has simply been overshadowed by competing theoretical perspectives within linguistics – most notably the theories of Noam Chomsky, which are incompatible with Sapir-Whorf. Obviously, if you assume that Chomsky is right, you have to conclude that Sapir-Whorf is wrong. But Chomsky’s theories, though popular within the fields of linguistics and cognitive science, have not been proven, and have even been strongly criticized by a number of linguists and cognitive scientists (here, for example). Moreover, not all linguists and cognitive scientists dismiss Sapir-Whorf; and some (like Lera Boroditsky) are doing empirical research on linguistic relativity, and are finding evidence that language does shape thought processes in interesting ways.

    It appears that there is some truth in the premise of linguistic relativity; though the effects are subtle. The fact that some have overstated the degree to which language shapes thought does not justify the overreaction of dismissing Sapir-Whorf out of hand. Unless one is dogmatically committed to Chomsky, I can see no reason why one wouldn’t at least entertain the premise of linguistic relativity long enough to see if there is any empirical evidence to support it. Anyone who suggests that it is nonsense without offering a shred of hard evidence to back up this claim is not speaking as a scientist, but as a partisan. In science we do not worship at the altar of authority. The truth of a statement is not established by the credentials of the person who said it, but by the logic and evidence cited in support of that statement. So, for those of you who insist that Sapir-Whorf is wrong, how about citing some well-designed, peer-reviewed, empirical research to back up that assertion, rather than trying to impress us with your academic qualifications, or insulting us by insisting that we’re too stupid to understand how language works.

  37. “it’s completely normal within Deaf culture to just say things that come off as rude to the hearing.”

    I had never think about it. That´s true, and seems to be a good reason. Good article.

    1. “The hearing”? The examples given could come from Germans, so unless deaf Germans are even more blunt than hearing Germans (when compared to English speaking people) it seems to be a more cultural issue than just a hearing/deafness issue.

  38. Modern cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics have, unsurprisingly, articulated a pretty nuanced view of linguistic relativity (the idea that the vocabulary and grammatical structures of your native language affect cognition in general).

    If you want something a bit more in-depth than the Wikipedia article, I’d suggest as a good primer the introductory chapter of Language in Mind, by Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow (link: big ol’ pdf). There are papers in this book from the whole spectrum of current scientific thinking on linguistic relativity, so you know the editors don’t have a particular bone to pick, other than the general confusion surrounding this issue.

    Another interesting perspective is that, even if all language does is provide labels for categories via words, this can still affect surprisingly low-level perceptual processes. See, for instance, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011452 [pdf] and doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.03.009 [pdf].

  39. I hope Maggie will delve more into the science and philosophy of linguistic relativism etc in future posts. It is a rich topic.

  40. I was just about to mention the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis! Thanks! Also there’s heaps of research coming out about language and cognition. Not talking about NLP (that’s brainwashing) but more about things like “hearing with an accent” and the relationship between how many languages you speak and how flexible your thinking patterns are.

    Also try bad translator….it illustrates an interesting point…

  41. Yeah….with Saphir-Whorf these days it’s less about that hypothesis being true and more about how the concept contained in the hypothesis has lead to other ideas that are more constructive.

    For example, the idea of language and culture being connected to how people perform on psychometric tests. The broader concept illustrates the point that people of various backgrounds can be equally capable but this might not be reflected in measurement due to cultural and linguistic biases in how the test is constructed or conducted. Something that can occur even if internal validity of the is quite high. Cronbach’s alpha doesn’t measure external validity, after all :)

  42. Time is probably a good example. It’s a concept/construct that is considered linear, curvilinear, circular, spiral, or irrelevant in different cultures and modes of thinking. It’s also possible, for example, to conceive of a different concept of time even though your native language may only describe it or use it in a particular tense form. One only needs to imagine it on a non verbal level and find similar or new language to describe (however flawed) that non verbal perception – this becomes jargon, no?

    Nonetheless, a concept like time is pretty important to how cultures organise themselves. So although the language may not prevent the conception of that version of time, it can be intricately connected to how the society behaves – the culture is impacted, not the basic capacity to conceive.

  43. A discussion on grammaticalized future tense in Japanese is irrelevant since it’s part of the lexical form together with context/agglutination. Has no bearing on whether the *concept* can be expressed or not. Different languages having different syntax/morphology/grammar? Gasp!

    Are we back to “Inuit languages have a billion words for snow” without acknowledging morphology and what not, again?

    Slap cultural differences/history onto that and we’re in for a ride. One I do enjoy, though.

    I can’t shake the feeling that we’re sitting in “our own” box peeking into another “big box of mystery” in this case. Shouldn’t we be past that? Today we can easily choose to observe from within that mystery box, without paradoxes. If you happen to be bilingual, great!

    It’s as if a translation (=interpretation – very important) of a source language into a target language can tell the whole story, in an absolute sense, and that there is some kind of baseline language (like English as a lingua franca, in this case) that only conveys a nucleus of “meaning”. It’s about translating concepts, not necessarily “words”.

    If “it’s raining meatballs” in my mother tounge, Swedish, would be the standard phrase for expressing “I’ve caught a cold” I’d wager there be very little drama within the Swedish population of how meatballs can express catching a cold, apart from a few etymologists and comedians doing what they’re best at naturally. Since when were direct translations ever interesting, save for historical reasons?

    Try to prove to me that there’s a langugae without deixis and I’m all ears, however.

    Sorry, waiting for my morning dose of caffeine to kick in so I’m probably a bit dim.

  44. the existence of slang and that fact of language growth/change means that the limitations of a given language are perceived to the point of necessitating additional language to accurately communicate,and “proper” language is prohibitive of accurate communication. If this limitation is perceived, it has effected psychology.

    the perception of a culture is embedded in it’s language- this includes slang (in which this is obvious). if so, the macro&root language also has these embedded perceptions-but become more and more archaic as diverse slang becomes prevalent language, thus a new macro perception becomes embedded.

    talking in the third person causes a change- you can grasp the meaning but the change is obviously there. “I am jack’s wasted life” is different then “I’ve wasted my life” though the meaning is the same- fightclub exaggerated but elaborated the psychological changes that occur using different language. if these changes didn’t occur poetry wouldn’t be distinctive from literature

  45. I’m not sure I understand how the deaf anecdote relates to the idea presented by the title. It seems that the deaf example is presenting things the other way around. The culture in which you are raised affects how you use language to describe the world (i.e. deaf people raised in __ environment tend to speak in __ way). I have no problem accepting this idea. I don’t see how this is support that your language is your worldview. The interpretation of what constitutes rude behavior seems to be a factor of environment rather than language in this example.

    The supposed significance of the hunger example is not explained. I think it isn’t particularly meaningful at all. It shows that English is able to express both descriptions of hunger. The fact that most English speakers generally refer to hunger as a biological state does not constrain our ability to consider hunger as a separate entity.

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