Does the Language We Speak Affect Our Perception of Reality?

The results of one Stanford study has implications for art, politics, law, even religion. 

 

Ethnobotanist and hallucinogenic scion Terrence McKenna said in one of his lectures that, “Culture is your operating system.” Through hallucinogenic drugs, McKenna posited, one could shed that operating system for a time and gain union with nature, other humans, and even an ancient mode of thinking which could give us insight into modern life. He wanted to bring about an “Archaic Revival,” which would end estrangement from society and reconnect us with one another.  


That puts a lot of emphasis on the power of language and culture. To some experts, language is considered a technology, perhaps the most powerful one of all. Eminent explainer of Zen Alan Watts said that in our culture, we often mistake words for the phenomenon they represent. “The menu is not the meal,” he said. Another insight, “We seldom realize…that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”

For centuries, linguists have more or less been split into two camps on the subject. One argues that language shapes thought, while the other claims that it is impossible for language to do so.  American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, modernized this debate. The idea that language shapes reality has henceforth been known as "Whorfianism."  He famously said,” Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.” Language in his view shapes the way we think, and determines what we think about.

Whorf studied the language of the Hopi of the American Southwest, and determined that their and Anglo-American culture were vastly different. This was due he said to differences in language. For instance, their perception of time was completely different. With English speakers, time is broken up into units, such as minutes, hours, and days. It’s a resource or a commodity. For the Hopi time is a never-ending stream. In this view, a phrase such as “wasting time” is impossible to conceive. How can you waste that which never ends?

A Hopi man in Arizona.

Whorfianism fell out of favor. One reason, as The Linguistic Society of America cites, is that we are able to remember and experience things for which we have no words. The taste of an unknown fruit is no less sweet. What’s more, changing the phonetic sounds of a word doesn’t change the facts about what it represents. Because of this, in 1994 psychologist Steven Pinker proclaimed Whorfianism dead. Pinker contends that we all think in images and bits of audio which our brain interprets as language. But it doesn’t end there.

Consider the interpretation of The Literary Society, who perceive thoughts, language, and culture as three strands braided together that make up human experience. They are hard to parse out. Whorfianism is starting to see a resurgence among some in the linguistic community. This is due in part to the work of Professor Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University. Whorfianism was considered untestable. Boroditsky wondered if it actually was.

She and fellow researchers at Stanford and MIT traveled the world collecting data, and comparing as divergent language systems as Greek, Russian, Chinese, Aboriginal Australian, and more. Boroditsky and her team found that those who are multilingual think differently from those who aren’t. The professor wrote that, “…when you're learning a new language, you're not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.”

And within any language system subtle changes in grammar, even mistakes that are accidentally carried on, have a significant impact on that culture’s worldview. “Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience,” Boroditsky wrote. “Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.” Simply put, different cultures emphasize different aspects of experience. It is this change in emphasis that makes learning a new language difficult, especially one so different from our own.

Students learning a second language.

Boroditsky along with colleague Dr. Alice Gaby at Monash University, came up with an empirical method to test the influence of language on thought. The Pormpuraaw were selected as subjects. This is an aboriginal community in northern Australia. Their native tongue is Kuuk Thaayorre. Instead of direction words like left and right, their language uses only the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. Instead of saying, “Please move your plate to the left” for instance, in Kuuk Thaayorre you would say, "Please move your plate south southwest." Another example, "There's a spider on your northeastern arm." Without being constantly aware of your geographical position, you simply cannot communicate in this language, past a few simple words.  

The result Boroditsky writes is that “Speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings.” But it goes beyond this. Their focus on spacial relations influences many other aspects of life including, “…time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions.”  

The researchers set out to find how this emphasis on geographic location affects the Pormpuraaw’s outlook on time. To do so, they showed volunteers a set of images depicting time’s passage, such as a crocodile growing up, a banana being eaten, or a man aging. Researchers wanted participants to put the pictures into their correct order. Each volunteer was given two separate occasions to do so.

A Pormpuraaw man during a traditional dance.

The direction a language reads in is pivotal for this exercise. For Anglophones, the images would be placed from left to right, while a native Hebrew speaker would arrange them from right to left. All the Kuuk Thaayorre speakers arranged the pictures from east to west. If they were facing south, the pictures went from left to right. But if they were facing north, they went from right to left. Such arrangement held true whether the person faced east or west. It didn’t matter whether the researcher mentioned what direction the subject was facing or not.

But these findings go beyond better understanding of a specific community. Boroditsky said that they have much broader implications for “…politics, law, and religion.” Truly, if we can account for cultural differences properly, we should be better at bridging the gaps between peoples, and can deal with individuals and groups from different backgrounds more fairly.

Beyond her research, “Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people's minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses.”

Boroditsky said that people from different cultures diverge according to “patterns of metaphor” within language. These surface in art as well. For example when it comes to symbolism, “German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.” In 85% of all artistic renderings, the sex of the figure portrayed relates directly to the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native tongue. The next step according to Prof. Boroditsky, is to find out is whether it is culture that shapes thought which language only conveys, or if it is language itself that does the shaping.

To learn about how language changes the brain, click here: 

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.