By Jada Haynes
With over one million words in English, it’s hard to think of the language as limiting. However, there’s evidence to show language’s effects on human perception. This effect is known as “linguistic relativism.”
Jada Bones, an applied linguistics major at Georgia State University, defined the theory.
“[L]inguistic relativism is the idea that language is gonna affect the way you think and how you see things…[An English] saying or metaphor could very well make no sense to a speaker of another language because of linguistic contexts.”
For a more visual example, The Himba Tribe speaks a dialect of Herero known as Otjihimba. As such, they use fewer words to differentiate between a range of colors. Interestingly enough, when shown a color palette of almost identical shades of green with one being a slightly different hue, the Himba were quick to point the odd one out. The Himba use a different word to denote one type of green as opposed to another.
However, researchers found that the Himba were slower to tell apart colors they associate with a single color term. When shown one blue square among green squares, the Himba were more likely to hesitate and make a mistake. This suggests that a society with fewer names for colors has difficulty recognizing many colors when placed next to each other.
Of course, the effects of linguistic relativism don’t stop at color perception. Take, for instance, absolute direction. In English, people use the cardinal directions, front/back, left/right, over/under and so on to describe where something is relative to something else. In languages spoken by aboriginal Australian people, sense of direction focuses solely on fixed cardinal points.
What this means is a shoulder becomes the “north shoulder,” and a bottle on the left side of a table now sits at the table’s “west end.” According to the Linguistic Society, even if someone is only thinking about past events or objects without relaying them to someone else, they would still use the cardinal directions as a reference point. Therefore, unfamiliarity with absolute direction would make most communication either difficult or impossible.
To English speakers, this may seem like a lot to keep up with. However, those fluent in certain aboriginal languages always know what direction they’re facing. If English did the same thing, perhaps there wouldn’t be so many people getting lost while playing Pokémon GO.
Finally, there’s the concept of evidentiality. In linguistics, it’s an affirmation of the speaker’s relation to whatever they’re talking about. It’s very useful for helping people “reason about the origins, reliability and strength of our beliefs.”
For instance, “The girls played softball” is a complete sentence in English. In a typical conversation, it doesn’t always need to affirm how the speaker knows the statement is true. However, Colombian Tuyuka has evidentiality sewn into sentences like these. For a speaker of this language, the sentence can take on various levels of credibility simply by switching up the ending. It translates as so:
“The girls played softball.” (I saw them.)
“The girls played softball.” (I heard the game and them but didn’t see it or them.)
“The girls played softball.” (I obtained the information from someone else.)
“The girls played softball.” (It is reasonable to assume that he did.)
A language that values evidence as highly as Colombian Tuyuka might prime native speakers to prefer matter of fact statements.
All things considered, linguistic relativism does have its benefits. With regards to color perception, it makes it easier to spot subtleties between shades. Some languages give the speaker more spatial awareness. Others seek to be as accurate as possible when relaying information. Yet, it’s also entirely possible that native speakers wouldn’t notice those are abilities their languages helped them hone.