Language Defines Thought

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We are a linguistically focused society – we frame thoughts in words more naturally than anything else, for the most part, and the specific words that we use often further defines and alters those thoughts. Apparently there’s a whole theory around this called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which looks at linguistic relativity and determination, ‘strong’ words vs ‘weak’ words, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Interestingly, they also link it into the idea of a universal base language:

But to restrict thinking to the patterns merely of English […] is to lose a power of thought which, once lost, can never be regained. It is the ‘plainest’ English which contains the greatest number of unconscious assumptions about nature. […] We handle even our plain English with much greater effect if we direct it from the vantage point of a multilingual awareness.

As writers we’re very aware that finding the correct word is vitally important. It can significantly affect the response of the reader to a character or world, or even the inclination to pick up the book at all. Some words call to people and some push them away. It’s one of the reasons titles are so important. So many words have a hundred associations (‘vampire’ being an excellent example) which will naturally colour the response to any sentence with that word in. It’s not just language, it’s all the emotions and past experiences and prejudices bound up in that language. Which is amazing, when you think about it. You can create incredible depth with just a few words, because of everything those words bring with them. Provided they’re the right words.

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2 responses »

  1. I wish I could learn languages as easily as when I was a child. There are words in gaelic that I can’t translate into english properly, as they have unique meanings of their own which aren’t exactly what the english translation puts across. I think it is probably true that the more multi-lingual you are the more tools you have at your disposal for expressing yourself. Those tools are only of direct use if anyone else can understand what you are saying… but it probably helps you think in a different way about finding the right way to express yourself in your chosen language if you have others to refer to.

  2. I remember an example of this from studying social science, about how not all cultures have the same colours – the way they divide that experience up is, to some extent, linguistically and culturally determined. But you see it in popular culture as well. For example, the word ‘n00b’ in a computer gaming context not only defined something people were already perceiving, but turned that into a significant concept with a lot of assumptions around it.

    Even reading the reference to Whorfianism, my cultural background affected the reading experience – I pictured the Klingon character from Star Trek, and so was laughing to/at myself as I read the rest of the post.

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