The way you think is shaped by the languages you know
Linguists Sapir and Whorf believe that when there is no word for an object or concept, people cannot think about it
May 18, 2017
George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 tackles power, autocracy, and the use of language to manipulate the working class. In an effort to control information and the likelihood of a rebellion, the ruling class implemented Newspeak, which is a shorthand version of English or Oldspeak, meant to limit people’s ideas through the use of a narrow vocabulary. With only a few words to use for expression, the working class gets subjected to mind control since critical thinking becomes impossible. This is the unrelenting power of words.
There has been a lot of research ever since the 1930s supporting the theory that language actually affects a person’s perception of reality and way of thinking. Linguists Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir believe that when there is no word for an object or concept, people cannot think about it. According to Worf, “language itself shapes a man’s basic ideas,” and this rings true in different fields of thought. The Native American Hopi tribe, for example, only uses the present tense, leaving them with no perception of time when they speak of factual accounts or stories.
Although language is responsible for shaping thoughts, it does not determine a person’s thinking entirely. The Dani tribe in New Guinea only has two words for color, one for warm colors and another for darker hues. This, however, does not mean that they cannot tell blue from purple. They are still capable of color discrimination as well as the perception of all ordinary objects.
The mind assigns meaning to different experiences through words. But apart from language, grammar also shapes an individual’s thinking. Syntax is important, which is why bilinguals are known to express themselves and acquire knowledge in two different forms; scientists call this the “bilingual advantage.” The bilingual speaker develops certain skills that involve the brain’s control system, and these include multitasking, memory switch, and a high attention span.
Language expands knowledge. It is heavily responsible for the way a person compartmentalizes and classifies the things he or she perceives, and these cause people to form different opinions and thought processes. Having different perceptions is important because it opens up discussions and opportunities for development. Diversity, more than anything, keeps our world turning.
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