We often think that our experience of reality shape and determine the words we use. It’s intuitive to see experience, concept formation, and speech as a strict one-directional flow. But what if we’re wrong about where language comes in? What if language actually changes our perceptions and experiences themselves?

I got together (well, virtually) with some friends to explore these questions on a recent Praxis philosophy night. Our topic? The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also called the principle of linguistic relativity.

Whether or not – and how much – linguistic relativism accurately describes the effects of language is a big debate. We started with one simple formulation of the problem from encylopedia.com:

“…Language ‘is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but is itself a shaper of ideas, the programme and guide for the individual’s meaningful activity’. In short, language determines (or shapes) our perceptions of reality.”

You’ve probably come across some related ideas in the field of language before. Presumably you’ve heard about how Eskimos have 5,000,000 words for snow (perhaps I exaggerate)? Whether or not that’s strictly accurate, a linguistic relativist might argue that the difference in language and the existence of so many specific shades of language for snow means that Eskimos experience the reality of snow differently.

 

If this is true, it has some major implications for our theories of language and for epistemology, or our methods of knowing. What would it mean for something so ever-present and essential as language to have a role in shaping our perceptions?

Join in with us as we work our way to the answer(s).

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