Languages: linguistic relativity, words vs. thought

One of the most intriguing concepts in linguistics is the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity principle. Simply put, it states that the language we speak can influence the way we think. Another common name for this theory is linguistic determinism. There are some subtleties in the usage of these different names (no pun intended), but in order to avoid confusing them and giving wrong information, I’ll refrain from attempting. There are many resources online about the details of this topic for those who wish to delve deeper. For the sake of this post, I will freely use the terms interchangeably.

Anybody who studied a foreign language, even without reaching fluency, has most likely had an experience with the linguistic relativity principle. The farther the language in question is different from the native language, the more the phenomenon is obvious.

Since I am currently writing in English, I will refer to English as the native language (L1), and for this to be a real-world example, let’s use Spanish as the target language (L2). They are quite different languages indeed: Modern English belongs to the greater West Germanic group, while Spanish is obviously a Romance language. Even though most Westerners are inevitably familiar with both and may able to understand simple phrases even without formal training (in part because there has been some contamination over the centuries), they are very different.

English nouns have no gender, and even though some of them do carry one (mother, father, brother, sister, etc.), they are still grammatically neuter. In Spanish, and indeed in all languages derived from Latin, all nouns carry a gender: the moon is feminine (la luna), the sun is masculine (el sol); interestingly enough, Spanish has no neuter gender! This is a source of frustration for native speakers of genderless languages: apart from the obvious nouns — la madre, el padre — a foreigner will have to send the gender of common nouns to memory, because there is simply no rule. Why is the hand feminine (la mano), but the foot masculine (el pie)? In many cases Latin can come to the rescue, but it’s probably wiser to just accept it as a challenge, and comply peacefully.

On the other hand, Spanish native speakers can find the lack of gender in English just as confusing. In Spanish you can differentiate between “mi amigo” and “mi amiga,” but in English you have no such luxury. Of course, you can say “my male friend” and “my female friend,” or formulate your sentence in such a way that the gender of the friend becomes obvious, but I can guarantee that a speaker of a Romance language — like me, as a matter of fact — will never get used to being left in the dark upon hearing phrases such as “I met a friend.”

This is a clear effect of linguistic relativity: the peculiarities of our native language are taken for granted, and do shape the way we interact with the world. We expect certain parameters to be taken care of, and when we switch to a language with a different rule set, we end up confused and resigned.

Another practical example is the usage of verbs: Italian has two “main” past tenses, called passato prossimo and passato remoto, ie. near past and far past. They are roughly equivalent in construction to past perfect and simple past. However, the former is used for events in the recent past, and the latter for events in the distant past; nobody would use passato remoto for something that happened just yesterday, while in English it’s perfectly legitimate (and effectively advised) to use simple past in such a case.

In other situations, instead, the target language may offer more choices than we are used to, and we end up not knowing which one to use: most English speakers have a hard time choosing between ser and estar in Spanish, for instance. In Esperanto, the way participles are formed yields a table of nine combinations for compound verbs: three tenses for the auxiliary verbs (past, present and future), and three tenses for the participles. It is not difficult to grasp the concept when unusual combinations are used, such as a past auxiliary and a future participle, but it’s virtually impossible to translate it to any other language.

This leads us to an interesting question: if our native language shapes the way we deal with the world to the point that we get confused when other languages have no direct equivalent forms for what we want to say (or ours doesn’t match what we’re being told in the foreign language), does it also work backwards? In other words: can forcing the usage of a specifically-tailored language effectively change the way people speak?

Such a theory has been exploited by George Orwell in its famous dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” in which the Party has gradually enforced the usage of a new, artificially modified language. The new language — aptly named Newspeak — is simplified: by getting rid synonyms and antonyms, people’s thoughts would also be simplified, and that is the ultimate goal of any totalitarian regime. To do so, prefixes and postfixes are used: bad becomes ungood, great becomes plusgood, excellent becomes doubleplusgood. This is not unlike Esperanto, although the simplification of Zamenhof language was aimed at helping its diffusion rather than limiting the thinking abilities of its speakers. [One might argue whether malsanulejo is really any simpler than *hospitalo: mal- (not), -san- (health), -ul- (person), -ej- (place), -o (noun).]

The Party’s reasoning is indeed very simple: by reducing the ways people can express thoughts, at some point they will be unable to even conceive them. In a world where people’s minds were constantly proved to be fallible, for instance by secretly rewriting newspapers, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that the folk will ultimately comply.

Whether Newspeak would work in the real world, especially in the highly globalized, twenty-first-century world that almost speaks in a single planetary pidgin, is not clear. However, there was at least one attempt, and it was made before Orwell wrote his best-selling novel.

At the end of the 1930s, the fascist regime in Italy promoted the Italic lineage, or “stirpe italica.” Everything Italian, or actually Italic (the distinction being that the latter refers to the ancient great times or Rome, from whose culture Fascism borrowed many symbols), was to be praised and protected. Mussolini was what we would today call a charismatic leader, someone who knew how to handle public relations: he knew how to speak to crowds and make them agree to anything — the declaration of war in 1940 is a testament to this —, also by describing a world that differed from reality. Imported products had to be replaced with locally-made surrogates, and even art was controlled and subjected to heavy censorship: this was the beginning of the infamous tradition of dubbing movies (which was done mostly to replace “inconvenient” parts) that still persists today, but language in general was greatly regulated.

Starting in 1938, the Italianization of foreign words became very aggressive. Not only common foreign nouns were translated (football became giuoco del calcio or calcio; basketball became pallacanestro; sandwich became tramezzino; etc.), but even cities were renamed to hide their foreign origins, with the clear goal of making them “more Italian.” This happened especially in the north-east of the country, an area of strong Slavic presence: Ahrntal became Valle Aurina, Pivka became San Pietro del Carso and so on. Even many last names were replaced with Italian translations or assonances: Vodopivec became Bevilacqua, Krizman became Crismani.

Did this make people more Italian? It’s hard to say, as such an experiment should have to last several decades to yield any measurable effects, yet that would be an unacceptable imposition upon a population. However, some of these words are still in modern use, and movies, as I said, are still dubbed.

What is certain is that the elements we have seem to show that forcing people to speak in a certain way may have censorship as a side effect. Thankfully, in today’s world the Internet tends to restore the languages’ natural evolution path, as it helps bypassing centralized regulation, and also fuels the linguistic melting pot more than centuries of human migrations ever could. But what if a community has no access to modern technology? Can closed groups give a deeper insight about the relationship between language and thought? They may, but that is something I will talk about in a future post.