Does language shape how we think? Linguistic relativity & linguistic determinism — Linguistics 101
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From the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” to modern psychology, get a quick feel for this ongoing debate. Is language about grammatical universals like nouns and verbs? What’s the relationship between language and culture?

Text version of this lesson with links to further resources:

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  • TLR Sexuality

    Neuro Linguistic Programming has shown how language influences thought

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Michael King

    Chump can deny this all he wants, it's pretty obvious that language influences thought

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Loc K

    for me its more like that the culture we are brought up with reflect our way of thinking.
    Language is simply materialisation of that.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Frank Bowman

    Modern linguists reject the Whorf hypothesis, yet the comments section is filled with multilingual people who say. "Of course Whorf is correct!". So what's up with modern linguists?

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Eric Taylor

    2:45 Why does it need to be one OR the other. Could the way we thing have in influence on how we use language while the language we speak has an influence on how we think.
    We can see many issues in science where, historically, they have considered one factor OR the other, while ignoring the possibility that BOTH play a role. The question of nature OR nurture, or the duel between uniformitarianism and catastrophism.
    I was only 10 years old at the time, but I well remember having learned that geologic processes take hundreds or thousands (or millions) of years to make much difference. Then, one spring morning a mountain in Washington exploded, destroying most of the mountain and obliterating the landscape for miles around. And it only took a few seconds!
    The reason that evidence supported both uniformitarianism and catastrophism is because both processes play a roll.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • dopplerduck

    I feel that cultures diverge on the basis of different interpretations of reality and language evolves to express things in a way that a culture sees reality.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Analisa

    From what I remember of you from BMHS, you have found your perfect calling, Mr. Rudder. I wish I hadn't been afraid to take a linguistics class or three in college, because I find it fascinating now that I teach native speakers of Spanish and ebonics. Thanks for educating us! –your former classmate A.A.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Primus Productions

    I got a question for both you and CompChomp.

    Do you think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis could apply more strongly to programming languages? Does doing more Object Oriented Programming make one think differently if one were to do more functional programming?

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Shishn P

    Another great video on the topic:

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Shishn P

    Also a good video for perspective:

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Shishn P

    CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION. To all the comments saying: "I think/feel totally differently in one language than I do in the other." Yes, I do, too. But who says that has anything to do with the language? Ever stopped to think, that it might have to do with the culture of the people you speak to in that language that determines the language, not the other way around? Or ever stopped to notice, that there are countries with millions of people speaking almost the same language, but they think and feel about alot of things very differently? Can you always predict someone's behavior, if you know their language? I recommend reading/listening to "The Language Hoax" by John H. McWhorter to get some perspective of how much language actually affects the way we think in everyday life, and also the dangerous implications you are making by saying that a certain group of people that speaks the same language is incapable of something just because it doesn't feature prominently in their language.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • fanOmry

    No mention of lojban?

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Raphael Sanding Jr

    Arrival brought me here

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Frank Harr

    This is just not something I've ever been a fan of.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Manchease Skrelpher

    Linguistic determinism predicts one of the scarier consequences of the spread of English across the world.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Minnaaa

    I feel practical in Italian, and very confident in English

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • ahmed ouajib

    He gave the core idea, so do some research to be sure of that or just go and watch Lera Boroditsky.
    this is what I call a tutorial video aiming and helping students faster. Thx a lot I appreciate your work and you deserve 100 likes.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Celes Tatiune

    Language certainly influences thought where thought requires language – That is, it's hard to express a concept such as "law" or a "state" without it. Emotional concepts such as fear, hunger, desire, and the protective instinct of offspring predate and exist outside the semantic sphere.

    The structure of a language, however, cannot help but influence the shape of concepts that require language, and even modify pre-lingual concepts in different ways (societal level expectations where we are expected to moderate desire, or even outright abdicate protectionism of offspring)

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • reiwell del

    Just a comment at the end about different native speakers approach a non language task differently from other native speakers. To say that its because of the language is a false attribution of cause. Culture plays a bigger role on how they approach a task and incidentally people who speak the same languages have the same culture.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Daniel Díaz Carrasco

    In spanish. Hola me llamo Daniel y abriré una página de Interent. In english: Hello my name is Daniel and I will open a web page. Translation of english: Hola mi nombre es Daniel y yo desar, or voluntad abrir una pagina inglés. Si traducimos literalmente nos damos cuenta que el lenguaje nos puede cambiar la mentalidad.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Kleo3392

    Why didn't you bring up Loglan and Lojban, languages that were based on this notion? They are designed to be completely unambiguous in Grammar and perfectly logical in every one of its features. It is based on predicate logic. The point was to see if becoming fluent would make people think logically, like a computer. Similarly, Toki Pona is grounded on minimalism, simplicity. It prides itself on having a vocabulary of only 120 rootwords (Lojban has over a thousand, which is still tiny compared to natural languages), being able to express all of human experience by combining these rootwords. It also has a very minimalistic grammar. In fact, the whole language can be described on one sheet of paper with the grammar points on one side, and the words on the other. They really have that few. However, this simplicity can often lead to ambiguity, not grammatically (Toki Pona is just as logical as Lojban), but semantically. It was meant to make people think in a more simple way upon becoming fluent.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Jameelah Edwards

    This is one of the things I appreciate most about learning other languages. Obviously it's nice to communicate with more people, but I find expanding my own perception to be rewarding as well.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • ψ M-Theory SSymmetry

    talking about different languages and mind states is childs play. I had
    2 open notebooks with 4 pages displayed in front of me, and unknowing
    of this hypothesis i thought, what if, what if I could write an equation
    with my right hand moving left starting on the last right page and
    write with my left hand on the very left page moving right and meeting
    in the middle of the page to finish the equation. I then tried to
    conceptualize this and although very hard, i immediately realized if we
    wrote this way, every aspect of human thought today would be an entirely
    different process and we would probably be of a far more advanced
    species. I imagine if this were the case, language would be entirely different as well and as a result an entirely different thought process. There are lots of things im not incorporating and this may not seem relevant to some but i feel there is a connection between the ideas.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • cogsys cogent

    Read old scifi, LANGUAGES OF PAO, really delves into question.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Alberto Contreras

    My dear, don't exist Yucatec , people in Yucatán speak Maya language.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Regular Emo

    And this is why people need to be multilingual XD

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • David Coulter

    I speak 11 languages and I have to admit that I'm pretty amazing. fap

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • WildStar2002

    I'm definitely a believer in linguistic determinism. I'm a native English speaker and my outlook is different when I'm speaking or reading Spanish or Russian. Spanish is great for story-telling for example. I remember hearing a woman tell me a story in Spanish that had the hairs raised on the back of my neck. When I tried to repeat the same story in English – it didn't have nearly the same impact.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • joshuaoha

    The term "linguistic relativity" is also used to point out that no one language is intrinsically superior to another, if both are capable of communicating information effectively.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • bilibiliism

    I found that it is always very hard to translate western, especially German philosophy articles into Chinese. Some meanings disappeared, or more commonly, became many times frustrating and complex after the process. A straight forward simple phrase sometimes translated into a long sentence with a lot of explanations along side.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Sohel Rana

    came here after watching movie Arrival

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Matthew Cecil

    I think the more provocative question is how our biology has shaped language. We talk about highly preserved genetic sequences in order to determine the relatedness of two similar organisms. The variation in genes that encode for the structure of our brain hold all the information necessary to produce linguistic relativity and determinism across our planet.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Capitan Testa

    I don't know if its relevant, but often i have quite simple thoghts or feelings that are hard or excessively long to explain with words.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Javiikyuu

    You should make a video of your thoughts on the movie "Arrival"

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • eartianwerewolf

    I would think that the language just reflects aspects of the culture that are already there, and certain traditions in cultures still remain even through time? But the language may evolve to reflect certain concepts as well

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Nielsen

    Ofcourse, the heptapod invasion of 2016 proved the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis right.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Renato Sousa

    arrival movie brought me here

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Chris Michael

    For anyone interested, TED did a lecture on a people's tendency to better prepare for the future (or even have stronger economies) depending on how the future tense appears in their language. English tends to have a more detached relationship with consequences because the future is forever fixed as outside, versus Korean or German, who speak of the future with the same connectedness of the present. (Essentially, English says "tomorrow I will go' whereas German says "tomorrow I go," linking present to outcomes more directly.)

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • John Moone

    Though it's a little short and it doesn't really go into as much detail as I hoped, it's a good video.

    In psychology, there is something that we call 'indigenous psychology', and it actually attempts to give more attention to those differences you've mentioned. One thing to note here is that indigenous psychology is interdisciplinary, you CANNOT separate the history, language, and culture of the people from its psychology.

    Western theories, which are presented to be as a universal and scientific psychology, is simply inappropriate to those of a different culture. Here in the Philippines, for example, we have the word 'kapwa' which means "shared self with the other". It has no direct translation in English, and it is actually the underlying concept behind the Filipino values. It is what we call the core value of Filipino Psychology.

    With that said… don't know if you're interested or not, but I would really love to see you make videos on words and what does it tell about the culture it belongs to. This is just a suggestion, but I hope you consider.
    e.g. 'kapwa' gives emphasis to treating other people as a fellow human being, and 'pakikipagkapwa' refers to interpersonal interactions of the Filipinos, that extends from 'pakikitungo' (civility) 'pakikiisa' (oneness and full trust).

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Sándor Szeles

    I would love to watch a video (series) from you on Lojban. It would be a nice follow up to this video.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Chase Novak

    Came here cause I'm trying to understand Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Zia West

    As an aspiring neuroscientist I hope to one day be able to take a swing at linguistic relativity. There's absolutely no way a serious scholar can say the language of origin doesn't drastically affect thought. Just think about all the different associations that will be made depending on your language. And all the large structural and grammatical differences would affect how ideas are expressed. And you can't forget the practice of gender in language. Neuroscience is far too complex and young for any reasonable scientist to think they could even create a test for something like this, and psychology probably got too excited thinking that they COULD test(because they think that they can test everything) it that they likely overlooked all the variables that come with measuring the most complicated thing we've discovered thus far in the universe.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Scott Richards

    In my college Korean class, someone asked the teacher's assistant (a native Korean) how to say "snuggle". The teacher's assistant got indignant and exclaimed: "KOREAN'S DON'T SNUGGLE!". Maybe they just didn't have the word 😛

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Tensai55

    It's really difficult to pinpoint if it's the language or the culture or a mix (I lean towards a mix as the culture is taught to us along with language when we're children). Part of that has to do with how complex human societies and interactions are.

    Language shapes the concepts we use in our conversations, however the culture heavily influences how we approach those concepts and the importance we put on those concepts. There are definitely universal concepts – the individual self for example, even if different cultures place different degrees of importance on self, it is a concept that exists across humanity. But there are other concepts that are not so clearly universal or well defined in every language/culture – such as time.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm
  • Fjore Moonchild

    I think anyone who is at least bilingual will agree that language relativity is actually a thing. I speak English, French and some German and the ease of processing or explaining a specific situation always varies depending on the language I use. Each language is like a mental asana that strenghtens a specific part of my brain. For instance, this may sound stereotypical but weighing the pros and cons of a situaton, discecting a concept or intellectualising emotions works really well in German. French is my favourite language to discuss books, films, elaborate on subjects, debate and just play with words because it's so vibrant and colourful… I think a lot of times in French, it's not necessarily the strenght of an argument that wins the debate but rather how it's phrased. English on the other hand, helps me organise myself in time; I find it's also a great language to feel the emotions and intentions behind words because the language is very fluid and the grammar is so simple; you get straight to the point and don't have to dig through piles of fluff to get to the core of the argument.

    June 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm

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