As Edward Sapir defines it, Language is “A purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.”1
However, when upwards of 7,000 languages exist all over the world, all with varying vocabularies and structures, are the things we try to communicate to each other being understood as we intended them to be?
Do speakers of English, French, Arabic and Chinese all end up experiencing and remembering things in different ways because of the differences in the languages they speak?
According to Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf; the language we speak plays a role in determining the way we think about certain things, whether it be time and spatial relations, or the traits we attribute to certain objects.
According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis this implies that people who speak different languages end up encoding different aspects of their daily experiences in order to use their language in the correct way. This suggests that an event can be experienced identically by two individuals who speak different languages, but be encoded in the minds of the two individuals in different ways, remembering different aspects simply due to the differences in the languages that they speak, since each language requires the reader to pay attention to separate things depending on the demands of that language. For instance, if an English speaker and a Spanish speaker were to witness the same incident in which an accident occurs; the English speaker is more likely to remember who caused the accident rather than the fact that it was an accident, whereas a Spanish speaker is more likely to remember that fact that the incident was accidental in nature, and would probably say something along the lines of “the balloon burst” rather than name who unintentionally burst it; However, in English you would usually name the cause by saying “He burst the balloon” even if it was an accident. The Spanish speaker’s memory of the incident would centre around the fact that it was an accident, while the English speaker’s memory would focus more on the person who perpetrated.
This theory also has many connotations regarding the cognition of multilinguals and how they accommodate these differences in the languages they speak. As a bilingual myself, I found myself intrigued by the idea that the way I think can be shaped by the languages I speak, and that both the languages I speak can make me think of the same things in different ways, even though I had not noticed previously. Hence, this essay focuses on how speaking different languages leads to different ways of thinking about the world.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has two forms. The strong form (linguistic determinism), and the weak form (linguistic relativity). The strong form of the hypothesis states that a language and its structure determines and limits how and what we think about things. The weak form of the hypothesis however, states that language simply influences thought but does not limit it.
Linguistic determinism has been heavily criticised and disproven, since after all, people are able to think about concepts that they don’t have the vocabulary for.
On the other hand, the weaker form of the hypothesis is more widely accepted.