Is it True That Your Worldview is Structured By the Language You Speak?

James McElvenny in Aeon: Switching between languages, we may feel as if we are stepping from one world into another. Each language seemingly compels us to talk in a certain way and to see things from a particular perspective. But is this just an illusion? Does each language really embody a different worldview, or even dictate specific patterns of thought to its speakers?

In the modern academic context, such questions are usually treated under the rubrics of ‘linguistic relativity’ or the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. Contemporary research is focused on pinning down these questions, on trying to formulate them in rigorous terms that can be tested empirically. But current notions concerning connections between language, mind and worldview have a long history, spanning several intellectual epochs, each with their own preoccupations. Running through this history is a recurring scepticism surrounding linguistic relativity, engendered not only by the difficulties of pinning it down, but by a deep-seated ambivalence about the assumptions and implications of relativistic doctrines.

There is quite a bit at stake in entertaining the possibility of linguistic relativity – it impinges directly on our understanding of the nature of human language. A long-held assumption in Western philosophy, classically formulated in the work of Aristotle, maintains that words are mere labels we apply to existing ideas in order to share those ideas with others. But linguistic relativity makes language an active force in shaping our thoughts. More here.