Is the sea blue or do I just think it is blue? The problem of linguistic relativity

I look at the sea and I say it’s blue; another person looks at it and says it’s green. It could be that the way we see the colour is different or it could be that we use the words ‘blue’ and ‘green’ differently. In other words we might think differently or we might talk differently.

Greeks looks at a dark blue object and says it’s ‘ble’ and look at a light blue object and say it’s ‘galazio’. To an English speaker these are just variations of one colour – a dark Oxford blue say compared to a light Cambridge blue. To the Greeks (and indeed to Italians, Russians and many others), these are quite different colours, having both light and dark shades. So do Greeks see differently from speakers of English or do they talk about it differently? Are thee differences part of our minds or part of our language? Do human beings think differently or do they just talk differently?

The question does not go away if we try to see how these differences could arise. The example that is always quoted is Eskimo words for snow. English has one word ‘snow’; the Eskimo language Yupik has many words for different types of snow. Fine snow is ‘kanevvluk’; snow on ground is ‘qanikcaq’; fallen snow floating on water is ‘qanisqineq’, and so on.  So obviously English people think quite differently about snow from Eskimos (or Inuit or Indigenous Canadians as some of them prefer to be called in different regions of Canada).

But doesn’t English also have ‘slush’, ‘sleet’, and even ‘hail’? Couldn’t any skier quickly add to the list with ‘powder snow’, ‘spring snow’, ‘blue snow’ (a sign of avalanches)? And so on. OK these consist of two word phrases rather than one but then Eskimo words are constructed quite different from English words in any case. Another example is ‘saltiness’ where English has one word and Bahasa Malaysia has a range such as ‘masin kitchup’ (salty like soy sauce), ‘masin maung’ (horribly salty), etc; sure enough Malaysians can distinguish the amount of salt in water much better than English speakers.

One aspect of language and thinking is how what we say relates to where we are standing or sitting. Suppose there are four people having dinner. John is on my left, Mary is on my right, and Peter is in front of me. I turn right round for some reason; now John is on my right, Mary is on my left and Peter is behind me. Because I am facing in the opposite direction, my perspective has reversed – left to right, front to back – and the words have to change to suit the new orientation – ‘left/back’, ‘back/front’. Quite obvious you might say – how could any human being not see the world in terms of which way they were facing? Our bodies have a front and a back and a left and a right; clearly we will see the world in these terms, technically called ‘relative direction’ because it uses the speaker’s direction as paramount. Till the 1990s linguists believed all individuals treated themselves as the centre of the universe linguistically speaking; our position in time and space dictates what we mean when we say ‘I/you’, ‘now/then’, ‘here/there’.

But then Steven Levinson discovered that Australian aboriginals do not locate themselves in space in the same way. In the original dinner party, they would say John is in the north, Mary is in the south, and Peter is on the east, depending of course on the orientation of the table to the points of the compass. If the speaker turned his or her  back, nothing would change. John would still be in the north, Mary the south, Peter in the east. The directions are concerned with the geography of the world so to speak, with absolute direction not related to which way they are facing. Suppose the dinner party took place in a revolving restaurant. As the restaurant went round, nothing would change for people who relied on relative direction; left and right would still be left and right. But every quarter revolution everything would change for those who relied on absolute direction; east would become south, then west etc.

The overall idea that people’s differences in speaking may reflect differences in thinking has become known as linguistic relativity; language and thinking are bound together and vary in all sorts of ways among the people of the world. For example one big difference seems to be between ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ people. Chinese people for instance tend to think about things more in terms of wholes, English people in terms of parts.

So does language make you think in particular ways, or does thinking make you speak in particular ways? By and large this has turned into question of chicken and egg; whichever starting point you choose has pros and cons. Researchers have been locked in combat the past decade, impugning each other’s research methods and questioning how many words Eskimo really has for snow.

Nevertheless a version of this thinking has in a sense ruled our lives for many years. Expressions have been labelled as racist or sexist and banned from polite conversation. We mustn’t say ‘nigger’ (though ‘niggah’ is used in Black English); we can’t talk about ‘handicapped’ people or ‘cripples’, only about the ‘disabled’.

Obviously at one level, avoidance of unpleasant terms is civilised; you do not want to call people by names they will find offensive. But you do have to check whether they are actually offended by the terms. A North-East council tried to stop a restaurant from calling itself the Fat Buddha, to the amazement of the Buddhists who ran it, who thought it was rather jolly to be fat.

The snag is when people believe that banning the word stops the thought, the approach of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. To imagine this goes deeper than the rules of polite conversation is to believe that suppressing the words suppresses thoughts; if you can’t say it you can’t think it. Forcing someone not to say something only works if it eventually affects their thinking; if the word ‘red’ were banned tomorrow, would English people see the world differently? No-one suggested that instead of banning smoking in public we should ban the word ‘cigarette’. It also ignores the sheer flexibility of language; a new insulting term soon emerges to take over the offensive term. And indeed yesterday’s insult is today’s badge of pride; ‘Tory’ came from an insult about Irish bandits and ‘Old Contemptibles’ became the name for the WWI veterans. To think that language censorship is an effective way of stopping prejudice is either to adopt a very strong version of the connection between language and thinking or to be as much concerned with the social niceties as Victorians who did not want people to mention the legs of tables.

Arbitrariness of meaning  Words for relatives  Colours   Saying No  Words index Vivian Cook