Does the language we speak shape the way we think?

An exploration of linguistic relativity, metaphors engrained in our thinking, and untranslatable words

All the way back in the 8th century, Charlemagne said:

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

What could this have meant?

First, let’s get on the same page. What is language? According to Merriam Webster, language is:

Audible, articulate, meaningful sound as produced by the action of the vocal organs, or, The words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.

The key phrases in these two definitions are: meaningful sound and understood by a community. Language, in other words, is the means by which humans describe the world, as agreed upon by a large group of people.

Sub-worlds, sub-cultures, sub-languages

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also considered linguistic relativity or linguistic determinism, states that the structure of a language influences or determines a native speaker’s perception of experience. While Edward Sapir, a 20th-century anthropologist-linguist, explored but may not have been fully convinced of this idea, his student, Benjamin Whorf, took it and ran with it after Sapir’s death in 1939. Just a year later, he published the Science and Linguistics essay in which he stated:

“Talking, or the use of language, is supposed only to ‘express’ what is essentially already formulated nonlinguistically.” In other words, speech is supposed to merely describe the objective world. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 20th-century philosopher, purported similarly in his book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that the world is theoretically objective and thus our language should be able to describe it clearly. However, similes and emotions add layers of complication along the pursuit to simple, direct, concise language.

One of the key arguments in Whorf’s 1940 essay is that language is background – it, itself is unnoticed – and what is said is the foreground. He encourages the reader to zoom out of their subjective experience with language and attempt to take a look at the bigger picture. Language is not so much a rule, but rather, a way of life… until you take a look at it:

“The familiar saying that the exception proves the rule contains a good deal of wisdom… What it might well suggest to us today is that, if a rule has absolutely no exceptions, it is not recognized as a rule or as anything else; it is then part of the background of experience of which we tend to remain unconscious.Never having experienced anything in contrast to it, we cannot isolate it and formulate it as a rule until we so enlarge our experience and expand our base of reference that we encounter an interruption of its regularity. The situation is somewhat analogous to that of not missing the water till the well runs dry, or not realizing that we need air till we are choking.

“For instance, if a race of people had the physiological defect of being able to see only the color blue, they would hardly be able to formulate the rule that they saw only blue. The term blue would convey no meaning to them, their language would lack color terms, and their words denoting their various sensations of blue would answer to, and translate, our words “light, dark, white, black,” and so on, not our word “blue.” In order to formulate the rule or norm of seeing only blue, they would need exceptional moments in which they saw other colors.

In this hypothetical example, only seeing blue is the background for this race of people. Since their experience of reality does not require names for colors beyond blue, they never invented words for other colors as part of their foreground.

As a real example in the same essay, Whorf invites us to consider that Inuit people (he uses the word Eskimo, which is now considered derogatory) have dozens of words for snow in its many different forms, whereas non-Inuit English-speakers only have the word snow. This is because Inuit people deal with snow in its many forms several times daily, so it is a much larger and more relevant piece of life in their culture and therefore in their language. “We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow — whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.”

Language’s effect on the shaping of our thoughts

Lara Borotisky, a 21st-century linguist, asserts that language is more than the tool we use to describe the world. She says it’s the tool we use to understand the world, which consequently means that language shapes our thought. Most of us believe that the opposite is true – our thought shapes the language we speak. This fallacy can easily befall a monolingual person, as he has no context – no comparison – against which to compare the language he has heard and spoken for his entire life. Borotisky enlightens us with the proposition that language impacts our conception of the objective world:

  • Across the world there are about 7,000 languages spoken. Let’s consider some ways to translate the same sentence across languages:

    • If a man accidentally bumps into a table upon which a vase sits and the vase goes crashing to the ground, in English, it would be perfectly fine to say, “He broke the vase [on accident].” If Spanish-speakers were watching the same exact scene, they would not say this, but rather, “The vase broke.” Are there consequences to this seemingly small detail?

    • Absolutely. The result is that, because the English language demands that the speaker identify who did the action, accident or not, English-speakers are more likely to remember who is at fault than Spanish-speakers. Spanish-speakers who witnessed the exact same event will be less likely to remember who is at fault, but they will be more likely to remember the intention – that it was an accident.

Why is this important? A personal example

I lived and worked in a US-based company in Chile for 14 months. I have worked in that same company, a full-service vacation rental administrator, in the US for 3 years in addition. My team provides customer service to our guests in 10 different Latin American countries. 

In such a business, sometimes our service fails, despite operational efforts. And sometimes, our guests will perceive that the service has failed when it has not. It is one of the key elements of the work of my team to determine which is true: did our service fail (and if so, why), or is the guest lying or exaggerating? Correctly identifying this separation is crucial because it orients us with reality and allows us to proceed accordingly – the guest is either owed compensation, or they are owed an explanation as to why they will not receive compensation. Getting this wrong means tarnishing our reputation with this customer and providing them a service that is incongruent with our company goals.

When I first arrived in Chile and my multilingual team began escalating situations with guests to me, I was shocked at the lack of detail when they explained what had happened and expected me to make a decision. This team is made up of Latinos; their first language is Spanish, and even if they spoke to me in English, they would say something like: “This guest is asking for a refund because they saythe house is misrepresented.”

My response: “Which part exactly do they say is misrepresented?”

It is advertised with a pool but the building tells them the pool is only seasonal so it’s closed.”

Did we advertise it with a year-round pool?”

In Spanish, it is very common to say phrases like, “The house was misrepresented,” or “The wrong key was given” rather than “We misrepresented the house,” or “Our local manager gave the wrong key.” The passive phrases can be “correct” in English too, but not when working in a company that provides a service and attempting to determine if the service failed or not. Questions to follow:

  • Did you check the listing to verify the claim that the house was misrepresented?

  • How does the guest know the pool is seasonal? Can this be verified locally?

  • If it’s true that the pool is seasonal, does our listing say this anywhere?

I found that my Spanish-speaking team was less likely to investigate a situation to know who is at fault and they were more likely to take statements at face value because the Spanish language allows for this use of speech much more liberally than English does. If companies took every customer claim for their word, they would be giving out many more refunds than their bottom line could allow for in a for-profit company. 

Identifying who is at fault does not matter in every situation, but it does matter if you’re making decisions that affect the budget and reputation of a company. This was an eye-opening lesson for my team of Spanish-speaking customer service agents that gave them a whole new perspective, a more astute way to use their language, and it leveled up their business thinking.

Borotisky ends her talk with the following thought: This is not about how people in other parts of the world think, but it’s about how you think. This thought gives you the opportunity to ask yourself the question, “Why do I think the way that I do? How can I think differently?” and also, “What thoughts do I wish to create?”

Metaphors that impact our thinking

Language is not just in words and literal phrases, but also in metaphor. A friend who’s staying in Israel and studying both Hebrew and Arabic purported to me recently, “The metaphors of a language can tell you so much about the values of their culture.” The book Metaphors we Live By expounds on this idea, and has made me realize just how deeply the English language engrains ideas in our minds, thus making the background even harder to notice.

The first important argument in the book is that metaphor is not this fanciful, poetic tool that is only used by choice. On the contrary, “Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

Authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain that metaphors are not just tools of language, but they are tools of understanding. Further, they are far more deeply embedded into our everyday speech, and therefore our thought, than any one of us realizes. This book does not focus on idioms – which are commonly used figures of speech – but rather our everyday use of non-literal phrases that we don’t even realize are non-literal, and therefore, are metaphorical.

Take, for example, argument is war. This is not a phrase you hear people say, right? It is not an idiom of English. It is, however, a metaphorical construct upon which several other everyday phrases are based, such as:

  • Your claims are indefensible.

  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.

  • His criticisms were right on target.

  • demolished his argument.

  • I’ve never won an argument with him.

  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!

  • He shot down all of my arguments.

These are commonly used phrases which assume that argument is war. Notice that when we use phrases such as these, we do not consider ourselves to be speaking metaphorically. But we are, because you cannot literally demolish an argument or attack a spoken point. You cannot shoot words or hit them as if they were a physical target.

What effect does this have on an English-speaker’s perception of getting into an argument? Once someone realizes that she is in an argument, she is likely to take on the fight-or-flight mode. Her physiology will very likely prepare her for a fight – her heart rate may increase, she may get sweaty and agitated, and she is immediately at opposition with the other person in the conversation. Or maybe she’ll want to take flight and back away from the conversation, thus never completing a discussion that may have been very important.

In attempts to zoom out and take a look at the background upon which we act, Lakoff and Johnson offer an alternative perspective. “Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they are doing ‘arguing.’ Perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance.”

Another systematic metaphor used in English is “time is money.” This, in contrast with “argument is war,” is considered an idiom, but it is also a structural metaphor upon which several other seemingly non-metaphorical metaphors are based:

  • You’re wasting my time.

  • This gadget will save you hours.

  • I don’t have the time to give you.

  • How do you spend your time these days?

  • That flat tire cost me an hour.

  • I’ve invested a lot of time in her.

  • I don’t have enough time to spare for that.

  • You’re running out of time.

  • You need to budget your time.

  • lost a lot of time when I got sick.

  • Thank you for your time.

Again, when we use phrases such as these, it doesn’t dawn on us that we are speaking metaphorically. Does this lead us to believe that we literally have time and can spend it transactionally?

“Time in our culture is a valuable commodity,” the authors write. “It is a limited resource that we use to accomplish our goals. Because of the way that the concept of work has developed in modern Western culture, where work is typically associated with the time it takes and time is precisely quantified, it has become customary to pay people by the hour, week, or year… These practices are relatively new in the history of the human race, and by no means do they exist in all cultures. They have arisen in modern industrialized societies and structure our basic everyday activities in a very profound way. Corresponding to the fact that we act as if time is a valuable commodity– a limited resource, even money– we conceive of time that way. Thus we understand and experience time as the kind of thing that can be spent, wasted, budgeted, invested wisely or poorly, saved, or squandered.”

Further, “‘Time is money,’ ‘time is a limited resource,’ and ‘time is a valuable commodity’ are all metaphorical concepts. They are metaphorical since we are using our everyday experiences with money, limited resources, and valuable commodities to conceptualize time. This isn’t a necessary way for human beings to conceptualize time; it is tied to our culture. There are cultures where time is none of these things.

Many commonly-used English metaphors such as these are related to money. Think about the phrase pay attention. Paying something assumes giving something that is yours on a transactional basis – you should get something in return for your attention. The same friend of mine who asserted that metaphors speak to the values of different cultures shared with me that pay attention in English translates in Hebrew to put your heart. No paying, no transaction – it is a totally different metaphor that has an underlying message worlds apart from trading your attention for some sort of gain. What does this say about English-speaking cultures compared to Israeli culture?

Opposition to this idea

20th-century linguist Noam Chomsky rebutted the idea of linguistic relativity with the concept of Universal Grammar. Universal Grammar essentially states that all languages follow the same rules and structure, and even with their variances, they can be translated perfectly:

“Components that are considered to be universal include the notion that words can be classified into different groups, such as being nouns or verbs and that sentences follow a particular structure. Sentence structures may be different between languages, but each language has some kind of framework so that speakers can understand each other vs. speaking gibberish. Grammar rules, borrowed words, or idioms of a particular language by definition are not universal grammar.

While it is true that texts in one language can be translated to any other language, there are many examples of words in certain languages that do not have a literal translation to another. The key word here is literal – while you can still get the idea across, the true essence and feel of the word can only be fully grasped if understood in the base language. Let’s look at some examples:

  • French, dépaysement

    • The feeling of not being at home, in a foreign or different place, whether a good or a bad feeling; change of scenery, disorientation.

  • Portuguese, suadade

    • A deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and/or loves while simultaneously having positive emotions towards the future. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never be had again. Translated to English as missing, longing, or nostalgia, but clearly it is deeper.

  • Japanese, mono no aware

    • The awareness of impermanence, or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing. Literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things,” or “a sensitivity to ephemera.” Translated to English in Google Translate as the mercy of things, which doesn’t fully capture the former definition.

  • Dutch, gezellig

    • Depending on context, can be translated as ‘conviviality,’ ‘coziness,’ ‘fun.’ It is often used to describe a social and relaxed situation. It can also indicate belonging, time spent with loved ones, catching up with an old friend or just the general togetherness that gives people a warm feeling. A mature Dutch friend of mine describes the setting of being at home with loved ones and drinking a tea as gezellig, and a 21-year-old Dutch friend of mine describes going out in a fun atmosphere with friends as gezellig

  • Spanish, sobremesa

    • Literally over table, sobremesa refers to spending time relaxing after a meal to drink coffee or digestive liquor or to just continue hanging out chatting at the table after eating.

These words can be translated more or less to English (and to other languages), but their essence cannot be captured in one English word. We may be able to use elaborate descriptions or various examples to attempt to convey the point, but the intrinsic beauty of the word in its base language is lost in this extensive attempt to translate it. If the essence of the word is lost in translation, this must be what Charlemagne meant when he said that to have a second language is to possess a second soul. One must understand the term in its base language to fully grasp it. This is why becoming fluent in a second language requires that you do not translate between it and your native language when communicating – you must be thinking and understanding in your second language.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis contains two extremes of the theory that the language we speak shapes the way we think. Linguistic relativity asserts that language impacts our thinking whereas linguistic determinism asserts that our thinking is determined by our language. While Wittgenstein’s point that the world is objective and language is only used to talk about that objectivity makes it difficult to prove the latter version, I encourage you to consider: what tools do you have in your toolbox to describe the world around you? We all only have the words, terms, and phrases (metaphorical and literal) that we have learned up to this point in our lives. So while our language may not dictate what we think, it certainly limits our ability to express our thoughts and emotions.

Even if this is true, why does it matter?

For one, in order to be a strong communicator (which is a highly-valued skill across almost all industries), one must be aware that his or her use of language may not have the same meaning to the recipient of his or her words. This awareness can help avoid misunderstanding, which is the basis of many disagreements, arguments, and unnecessary negotiations. Whether teaching a classroom of kindergarteners, speaking with a loved one, or leading a nation, avoiding misunderstanding and communicating your intended meaning can save time, money, and heartbreak– and it can even prevent wars.

Additionally, the ability to zoom out of our deeply subjective existence and become aware of the “background” — the unnoticed, the unquestioned, the norm — elevates one’s thinking and inquisitiveness. The pursuit of asking “why” — why do we do it this way, why do those people do it that way, why not try something new — is often what separates those who make their mark on the world from those who don’t. They are the thought leaders of every generation, because they are able to see what others cannot and explain what they see so that the blind can comprehend.

Communication is a vital part of everyone’s life, professionally and personally. Our world as we know it would cease to function if we were unable to communicate with one another. Language is an invention of humans that we all must agree upon for it to work. While we all have subjective experiences, the act of communicating in the most objective or sensible way possible is a virtue of both empathy and efficiency. It all starts with the awareness that language is subjective. But we must strive for objective communication.

To leave you with a quote from Benjamin Whorf in his essay:

The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds— and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATORY; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.