Language, culture and thoughts: do languages shape the way we think?

Members of different cultures speak different languages. Does it mean that people who speak, let us say, English, see things differently than people who speak Chinese or Spanish? In other words, does language lead our way of thinking or is it the other way around?

According to Benjamin Lee Whorf and his theory of linguistic relativity, language shapes the way we think, and determines what we think about. He believed that depending on the language we speak we see the world differently.

His best example was the comparison between the idea of snow of an English person and an Eskimo person. The Eskimo has many words to describe snow, while the English only has one. An Eskimo has a specific word to describe the wet snow, the snow currently falling and so on. Therefore an Eskimo perceives the snow in a different way than an English person.

Another example is the Dani people, a farming group from New Guinea. They only have two words to describe the two basic colors: dark and bright. Hence a Dani person cannot differentiate colors as well as an English person is able to.

Although Benjamin’s theory is not yet completely clarified, it is correct to say that a language could facilitate some ways of thinking.

True or not, this topic is an interesting one to reflect upon. Linguists and people who speak many languages have come up with the same idea. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V spoke 6 languages fluently and said the following:

I speak Italian to ambassadors, French to women, German to soldiers, English to my horse and Spanish to God.
A man is as many times a man, as many languages he knows.

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1 thought on “Language, culture and thoughts: do languages shape the way we think?”

  1. I think language does affect culture. Of course it could also be that culture has affected language, but the affect is there. Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, writes about the language of the cockpit in airplanes. I often wonder at the individualistic nature of English speaking America and it’s lack of a you plural form. There is no distinguishing word for the group. Anyway, just a few thoughts. Great post and a very interesting topic.

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