How Language Shapes Our Myths, Logic, and Common Sense

There are those who will tell you that learning styles are a myth – that the evidence from psychology, cognitive science, neurology, and other numerous fields just can’t prove there is any such concept as learning styles. Despite the rational arguments, the research, and the evidence, the belief in learning styles is still persistent. It is so ingrained in us for a number of reasons, but mostly because it logically makes sense. I know that the idea is a myth, and I know the reasons why it is a myth, but also know that it still makes sense, logically. I’m sure many of us feel this way. We’re suffering from a kind of cognitive dissonance in which we must believe the evidence rather than our logic and gut instincts.

Our personalities shape how we learn. Now, let’s replace a few keywords: Our language shapes how we think. Another perfectly logical idea! However, like learning styles, it is another myth (even one that some anti-learning styles gurus may subscribe to). This is a myth I have been bothered by for quite some time.

Not a week goes by in which I do not stumble across an article that explains how our language shapes our thoughts, our feelings, our beliefs, our diet, our bodies, or our love-making skills. It’s as if Sapir and Whorf themselves have risen from the grave and begun a linguistic click bait crusade. These poplinguistics articles are found on (mostly) reputable sites like NPR, The New York Times, TED.com, The Independent and Scientific American.

This is a hotly debated issue, and the “How Language Shapes Our…” titles draws a lot of traffic, shares, and retweets to the point where just the sheer volume of these titles is likely beginning to shape most people’s perspectives on this issue. And people believe it because the idea is just so logical! Of course language shapes us. Why wouldn’t it. However, it’s not that simple and I fear a belief in this kind of logic can have minor but far-reaching negative effects.

There is an implicit sense of racism and cultural differentiation behind these headlines that focuses on arbitrary differences. Yet, the headlines abound despite these ideas being debunked again and again. John McWhorter wrote a wonderful and brief book on this subject that I highly recommend reading called “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language“. Below, I attempt to explain my thoughts on the subject, unfortunately not so articulately laid out as McWhorter’s. (Hear an interview with McWhorter on “The Language Hoax” here.)

The basic premise of most of these articles’ arguments is that our thoughts are filtered through our language, and therefore our language shapes our worldview (which is not clearly defined, but seems to be an amalgamation of thoughts, perspectives, and subconscious and perhaps conscious beliefs). For example, from the NPR article above, a glimpse of the Russian and English worldviews as permeated by language is summarized below:

For example, she says English distinguishes between cups and glasses, but in Russian, the difference between chashka (cup) and stakan (glass) is based on shape, not material.

To someone who believes in linguistic relativity (a.k.a Whorfianism a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), this fact about how Russian and English distinguishe the objects is insight into how these languages’ speakers’ worldview differ. Couple this with the fact that Russian speakers have been shown in controlled experiments to recognize different shades of blue slightly faster than English speakers and you start to build a case for Whorfianism. A weak Whorfianist might state that this proves there is a fundamental difference in these speakers’ worldviews, and language is the variable that causes this difference.

One must say that because Russians experience blueness different from English speakers and that they perceive everyday objects as categorically different, they have different views of life (i.e. worldview). Taken to its logical conclusion, a strong Whorfian could argue the world of color is richer to Russians, and that this must be somehow related to the Russian peoples’ penchant for Communism, purges, borscht and onion domes. Whereas the world to an English speaker is rather muted and dull, which is why we may spend our time competing to design cars from every shade of the rainbow in a capitalist society.

Does the fact that most Romance languages having gendered articles make these language speakers more sexist in any way, or at the least, perceive gender and everyday objects radically differently? Does the English definite article mean that English speakers understand specificity better than speakers of Polish or Chinese who lack these types of constructions? Do Turkish speakers understand truth differently because they have special grammatical markers that tell the listener where the information they are hearing comes from?

If these last ideas sound extreme, it’s because they are. And herein lies the danger of Whorfianism. Whorfianism, in looking at language differences, focuses on what one language has and another lacks, and then makes broad generalizations about those language groups. The problem here is overgeneralization or false generalization, which leads to reinforcing subtle concepts of racism and otherness.

For example, if we say that the Hopi experience time in a better way because they lack the words for time and are therefore said to experience past, present, and future as a single phenomenon; or if we say that the Inuit experience the world in a deeper way because they have different words for minute variations of snow; or if we say that a certain Australian culture is closer to nature because they do not think of left and right, but use cardinal directions and are extremely accurate; if we say all this, then we are at the same time romanticizing the “primitive” and reinforcing otherness, no matter our noble and equalizing intentions.

According to McWhorter:

…in the end, the embrace of this idea is founded on a quest to acknowledge the intelligence of “the other,” which, though well intentioned, drifts into a kind of patronization that the magnificent complexity and nuance of any language makes unnecessary. It is a miracle when any one of the world’s six billion persons utters a sentence, quite regardless of whether it signals how they “see the world.”

He continues with a great example of the danger of Whorfianism:

Take the intransigent ultranationalist German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. Prussophile, xenophobic, and nakedly anti-Semitic, he was given in the late nineteenth century to insights such as “differences of language inevitably imply differing outlooks on the world.” You can imagine the kinds of arguments and issues he couched that kind of statement in, and yet the statement itself could come straight out of Whorf, and would be celebrated as brain food by a great many today. “Surely,” after all, “the question is worth asking …”—yet somehow, we would rather von Treitschke hadn’t, and find ourselves yearning for thoughts about what we all have in common.

Given that our intentions are pure, and that we seem to want to raise up the status of people seen as culturally “backward”, it would be better to focus not on these differences but on the fact that phonetics and grammar are universally arbitrary and that we all speak essentially randomly organized languages. Not equalizing enough? How about the fact that most “primitive” languages are thoroughly more complex than your average world language (English included)? Or how about the fact that, as McWhorter’s subtitle suggests, we all see the world in the same way?

So, here we have a perfectly logical idea: language shapes thought. And this idea make so much sense, that it is written about time and time again. Yet, looking at the evidence, and even more carefully critiquing the idea, we can see that this supposed common sense is just a myth. Yet, it still persists, just as the belief in learning styles and numerous other debunked myths do. Why?