Amy Qu-Linguistic Determinism

Lera Boroditsky's lecture "How the Languages We Speak Shape the Ways We Think"; a good preview of the contents of this page.

    Linguistic determinism, one part of the Sapir-Whorf language hypothesis, is the idea that what language you speak influences your thinking. Linguistic determinism can vary from weak determinism to strong determinism. Strong determinism suggests that one's view of the world is "strictly defined by language". In weak determinism, the relationship between language and perception are not as strong, but still present. (12) According to linguistic determinism, the language you speak is responsible for how you organize concepts in your mind, meaning that language determines what you perceive. (12) Linguist Edward Sapir says, "Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation". (9)

    Linguistic determinism also proposes that different languages create entirely different worlds, or views of reality. Sapir states, "The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached". (9) The extent to which language affects perception is still being debated, but examples of linguistic determinism can still be seen all around us. These examples will be explored in depth in this page's subcategories which include: The Perplexing Predicament of the Piraha People, Multiple Languages=Multiple Personalities?, Language's Effect on Color, The Sapir-Whorf Language Hypothesis, and Language and Time Perception.

The Perplexing Predicament of the Piraha People
    The Piraha tribe consists of about 750 people, and is located in the Amazonas state of north-western Brazil. (2&3) The Piraha live with little outside influence; hunting and gathering for food, and bartering with river merchants for everything else. (2) However, the most striking thing about this tribe is not their lifestyle, but their language structure. Daniel Everett, a renowned linguist, is best known for his studies of the Piraha language and people. The native language of the Piraha people has no word for any number bigger than 2; anything beyond 2 is simply called "many". At the end of Everett's study, despite 8 months of being taught Portuguese, not one of the Piraha people could count to 10. (1) Daniel Everett claims that the Piraha people, due to the lack of numbers in their "here-and-now" oriented language, are unable to think of things in terms of quantity. (2) This study creates strong evidence for the existence of linguistic determinism, and suggests that, without language, principles as basic as quantity may become impossible to think about. However, according to Everett, numbers are not the only thing missing from the Piraha language. The Piraha people also have no terms for colors, no creation myths, and no way to talk of the distant past or distant future. (3) The Piraha tribe serves as living proof of effects that language can have on thinking.
Everett speaking on the intricacies of the Piraha language.

Multiple Languages=Multiple Personalities?
Can switching languages make Sudan into Josie? (16)

    The influence of language on personality can be especially evident in multilingual people who "switch" personalities as they speak in different languages. When asked in a survey by Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko, ~2/3 of over 1000 bilinguals reported that they felt like a different person when they spoke different languages. (5) In a study by Susan Ervin-Tripp, bilingual Japanese-American women were asked to complete the sentence "When my wishes conflict with my family...". When tested in Japanese, one participant said "When my wishes conflict with my family, it is a time of great unhappiness", however when tested in English, the same participant said "When my wishes conflict with my family, I do what I want". (4) Ervin-Tripp also carried out a study in which Thematic Apperception Tests were given to bilingual French-Americans. The TAT is a projective personality test that aims to assess a person's personality through stories that they make up about random scenes; this is supposed to tap into the unconscious, and let a person's true personality shine through. When test sessions were held in French, the stories often included "domination by elders, guilt, and verbal aggression towards peers". When test sessions were held in English, stories often included, "female achievement, physical aggression, verbal aggression toward parents, and attempts to escape blame". (5) Do differences in results of personality tests show different personalities? 
Findings from one of Ervin-Tripp's studies
Findings from Ervin-Tripp's study on Japanese-American women. (5)

Language's Effect on Color
    Among other things, language may also affect how we perceive colors. If your language doesn't have a word for a specific color/hue,  it can be much harder for you to recognize that color. One African tribe, the Himba tribe, only has 5 basic terms for colors, as opposed to English, which has 11 terms. Each of the Himba color terms covers a much wider range of colors. (6) In a study by Debi Roberson, this made it was much harder for Himba tribe members to differentiate between the blue and green shown below. (7)
Can you easily pick out which square is different? The Himba tribe member probably can't. (6)
However, when tested, members of the Himba tribe easily picked out which hue of green in the wheel below was different from the others. (6)
Believe it or not, one of the squares is unlike the others in hue, as shown by the RGB values on each square. (6)
How languages differ in color categorization.

    According to the Stanford study Effects of language on color discriminability, "linguistically learned categories can indeed affect people's perception of color". The study also says, "Results of three experiments suggest that color language can influence people's color judgments even in conditions when all color stimuli are present at the same time and need not be stored in memory". This study shows evidence for the impact of language on color perception, but like most things in psychology, it cannot be completely proven that different languages perceive color differently. (15)

The Sapir-Whorf Language Hypothesis
A brief explanation of the Sapir-Whorf idea of linguistic relativity/determinism.

    The Sapir-Whorf Language Hypothesis is named for the 2 linguists who first popularized it; Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. The Sapir-Whorf is built on the idea that "everyone has the fundamental need to make sense of the world". (8&9) According to Sapir-Whorf, how you see the world and make sense of it depends on what language you speak, making this hypothesis a mould theory. Mould theories "represent language as a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast". (12) The Sapir-Whorf consists of 2 basic ideas; linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. Linguistic relativity is the idea that the language a person is socially exposed to is the language that they "will think and perceive the world in". (12) Linguistic relativity proposes that there are some ideas that can exist and be thought about in some languages that cannot be thought of or translated completely into other languages. For example, the Punjabi word "joot" can be translated as "unclean", "not-pure", or "with germs", but no matter how hard you try, and what word combinations you come up with, the full meaning of "joot" cannot be translated into English. English speakers, because of the deficiencies of the English language, will never be able to think about or fully perceive the concept of "joot". This raises the idea that language is not set in stone, but relative; thus, the idea of linguistic relativity. (12)

You might see nothing wrong with this partially eaten donut, but to a Punjabi speaker, this unfinished snack is "joot". (17)

Language and Time Perception
    Unsurprisingly, different languages have different ways of talking about time. For example, in English, we tend to say things "I look forward to the good times ahead", or "The worst is behind us". These are called horizontal spatial metaphors, and are commonly used in the English language when talking about time. Use of vertical spatial metaphors for time are very rare in English, and are used much more often in Mandarin Chinese. "Next month" is literally translated as "down month", and "last year" is literally "up year". (10&11) So what effect does this have on the way English and Mandarin speakers think about time? In an experiment where Mandarin and English speakers were asked to arrange pictures in sequential order, Mandarin speakers arranged photos vertically about 18-39% of the time (depending on the group), whereas English speakers never did. In another experiment, when English and Mandarin speakers were asked to arrange events in a 3-dimensional space, 42% of Mandarin speakers made vertical arrangements to show time, whereas only 5% of English speakers did. (11) 
Which one of these images do you more easily associate with a long period of time? (22&23)

    English also differs from other languages in what terms are used to talk about time. English tends to discuss time in terms of length, saying things like "It didn't take a long time", or "The movie was short". However, other languages, such as Spanish or Greek, discuss time in terms of amount, saying "little", "big", or "much". This affects the basic cognitive ability to estimate time. English speakers were more likely to overestimate the amount of time that a longer line appeared on the screen, showing that English speakers more often equated length with time. Meanwhile, Greek speakers were more likely to overestimate the amount of time a fuller container appeared on the screen, showing that they were more likely to equate amount with time. These patterns of thinking can also be changed; when English speakers were taught to use size or vertical metaphors to discuss time, their thinking patterns eventually started to resemble those of Greek or Mandarin speakers. (10) 

Criticisms and Support of Linguistic Determinism:
    Linguistic determinism is often criticized because of Whorf's methods of obtaining information. Eric Lenneberg, Steven Pinker, and Noam Chomsky have vocalized their concern about Whorf's evidence base, which is comprised mostly from personal experience and observation. This raises many questions about the reliability of Whorf's theory. (13) Whorf's reliability is also challenged by Geoffrey Pullum in Pullum's essay; The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax. According Whorf, the Inuit language has numerous terms for "snow", which causes Inuit speakers to have a different perception of weather than English speakers. However, Pullum disproves the claim that the Inuit language has an unusually large number of terms for "snow", therefore disproving Whorf's claim that the Inuit perceive weather in a dramatically different way than anyone else. Steven Pinker, one of the main opponents of linguistic determinism, claims that thought is completely independent of language. Pinker argues that an inborn mental language-mentalese- precedes any spoken language, and that we think in "mentalese". He also makes the claim that language as we know it is completely unnecessary to human thought. Pinker has gone as far to say "the more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make". However, Pinker does not offer any evidence to support his viewpoint against Whorf. (14)

Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and linguist; one of the main opponents of the linguistic determinism theory. (18)

    Evidence for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is categorized into 4 general types; differences in lexicon, consequences of vocabulary on behavior, differences in basic grammatical structure, and effects of grammar on behavior. (19) The 1st class of evidence, differences in the lexicon of different languages, refers to different terms in a language's vocabulary that are unique to that language. This type of evidence shows that the speakers of different languages think about different concepts. For example, in Latin there are two terms for "blood"; "sanguis" for blood inside the body, and "cruor" for blood outside the body. The 2nd class of evidence used to support the Sapir-Whorf, consequences of vocabulary on behavior, is seen in the influence of basic terms for color and color recognizing ability. According to the University of Colorado, "the number of basic color words in a person's color vocabulary" effects how easily a person can recognize differences between colors and tell colors apart. (19) In short, you cannot easily place a label on something that you have no vocabulary for. The 3rd class of evidence, differences in basic grammatical structure, show that languages not only have different vocabularies, but also different rules for grammar. Grammar "reflects fundamental distinctions" between things like states of being and entities. In the Caddoan language, state of affairs and entities are not clearly separated, essentially making everything a noun. Instead of saying "They say there was a big buffalo lying there" the literal translation is "Apparent past prone state of big buffalo". (19) Lastly, the 4th class of evidence, the effects of grammar on behavior, shows that the grammar of a language and what distinctions are present in a language influence behavior. For example, verbs in the Navajo language place emphasis on the shape, flatness, and flexibility of objects. In a Carroll and Casagrande study, Navajo and English-speaking children were both given a blue stick, a yellow stick, and a blue rope. The children were then asked to pick whether the yellow stick or blue rope went with the blue stick. Navajo children used the properties of shape to group objects, and chose the yellow stick. However, the English-speaking children grouped things by color, and chose the blue rope. (19)
Nature and Nurture:
    Linguistic determinism can be effected by both nature and nurture. Linguistic relativity states that the language someone speaks impacts how they view the world, and how they think. (12) This would be an example of nurture's effect on cognition and development because the language you are exposed to depends most heavily on your environment. Depending on your environment, your perception and patterns of thinking may be different depending on your language. However, nature also plays a role in this phenomenon. When a new language is learned, the brain structure changes. There are changes in the gray matter of the brain; gray matter is associated with muscle control, formation of new memories, emotions, and most importantly, perception. (20) It has been shown that brain structure can be genetically influenced, meaning that you can pass down the differences in your brain structure down to your children, they can pass it down to their children, and so on. A report from the UCLA School of Medicine states, "Genetic factors significantly influenced cortical structures in Broca's and Wernicke's language areas, as well as frontal brain regions... These genetic brain maps...may shed light on the heritability of cognitive and linguistic skills..." (21). Therefore, by having a certain effect on your brain, the language you speak can also have a similar effect on the brain of your children. This shows that linguistic determinism can not only be caused by environment, but also genes.
    From the biological perspective, linguistic determinism could be caused by differences in brain functioning. Depending on language, your brain structures may perform differently, which may affect your perception and thinking patterns. From a psychological perspective, you may think differently in different languages due to changes in personality that occur when you speak a different language. As seen in the previous subtopic Multiple Languages=Multiple Personalities?, multilingual speakers often report feeling as if they experience changes in personality when they speak different languages. Your personality is comprised of your characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. So if your personality is changed, so are your characteristic patterns of thinking. From a social perspective, linguistic determinism could be caused by the different environments in which each language is spoken. For example, if you live in America and speak English, the culture and environment may require that you think/behave differently than if you spoke Hindi and lived in India. If an environment requires that you think a certain way and speak a certain language, the language and the ways of thinking may become heavily associated with each other. The culture that you live in could affect your language, which will in turn affect your thinking.