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How language shapes the way we see the world

Have you ever considered how the languages we speak shape our world, offering colour and narrative to the complexity of the human experience? The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, also known as the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, discusses just this. To make a long story short, it was first proposed in 1929 and stated that language determines perception. However, today, most linguists agree this is not true, rather, language influences perception. The important thing that came from this hypothesis, and further research into its statements, is the understanding that while language does not determine our perception, it does influence it. Language shapes our thoughts and influences our emotions. 

There are about 6,500 languages currently in the world and so there are thousands of different linguistic lenses through which people see the world. As people continue to become more interconnected than ever, the importance of understanding our differences in perception, as well as how we can all benefit from such differences, is more important than ever. 

One way we can introduce examples of language shaping perception is with love and colour. In Ancient Greece there are eight words used to describe love, while in English there is only the word itself.  While the definitions for these words are slightly different, they are expressions of love. We’ve selected four examples to offer you a quick example of what we mean:

  • Agápē was seen as the highest form of love. At one point it was specifically god’s love for people and their love for god. 
  • Érōs signifies love and desire, usually of a romantic nature 
  • Philía is affectionate love, usually involving friendship 
  • Storgē is love between family 

By having different experiences of love so clearly defined, there are more outlets for differing expressions of love. This can be argued to have allowed people in ancient Greece to feel love more often and in more varieties. 

 Another example can be found in colours. In Russian they use the words ‘goluboy’ for light blue and ‘siniy’ for dark blue. One can see this distinction in other languages as well, such as with the Italian use of ‘azzurro’ and ‘blu’ for light and dark blue. Because English only designates blue, native speakers are not as well prepared to recognise the differences and can thus be argued to have a different perception of the colour blue, and its different shades 

Language shapes and influences our perception in many ways. Beyond these aforementioned examples, arguments can be made that our perceptions can be impacted by areas including but not limited to, sentence structure, vocabulary, formality, gendered language, intonation and culture.

Sentence Structure and Word Order 

Continuing with sentence structure, the first example relates to word order. Subject-verb-object (S-V-O) is the most common basic structure, often being seen in languages such as English and Mandarin. Subject-object-verb (S-O-V) is used in languages such as Hindi, Sicilian and Turkish. These two sequences make up about 75% of languages which use structured word order. 

There can also be impactful variations within these two main sequences. For example, take the following sentences: 

‘George broke the vase’ & ‘The vase was broken by George’ 

While both are S-V-O, the emphasis changes depending on the subject. In the first sentence, the emphasis is on George breaking the vase. In the second, the emphasis is placed on the vase having been broken. Consider how placing the emphasis shifts control of the actions. One culture places the person involved as an active participant in this situation, while the other limits their participation, all through word order. 

When learning a new language, one must also learn a new perspective. For example, In English, it’s easy for one to add on to a sentence at the end. Grammar rules allow me to write something such as ‘how yesterday I was running late for work so I got dressed, ran out the door and tried to catch the bus all while eating my breakfast and calling my boss to let them know I was going to be late since I didn’t set an alarm.’ These types of seemingly endless sentences are a common part of verbal discussions.  

The planning of the structure of a sentence is an interesting area of consideration when understanding how languages impact our perceptions. In English, German and Dutch, the verb the agent of the sentence is named before the verb. In Irish and Hebrew the Verb is first and in Japanese and Latin, the verb is last. How might this impact the planning of a sentence, as well as the interpretation of an event. If the speakers must first identify the subject before the action, is there any difference when it’s the opposite? There are ongoing studies looking into the impact of this, offering concrete evidence supporting some of the claims of the theory of linguistic relativity.  

Vocabulary 

While we already mentioned some examples of vocabulary influencing perception, there is more to discuss. In Australia, there is an Aboriginal language called Guugu Yimithirr, which does not use ‘right’ or ‘left’. Instead, they rely on the cardinal directions; north, east, south and west. Instead of directing someone to pick something up with their right hand, they might say east hand instead. Though, that depends on which direction the people involved are facing at the time. Because of this, researchers feel that those who speak Guugu Yimithirr are very skilled at orienting themselves, and that they have a high capacity for memorization. Their perception of their surroundings, including landmarks, water and various other aspects, are all continuously tracked to maintain their orientation. 

Also, emotions are influenced by the words we use to describe them. Labelling emotions helps us identify and understand what we’re feeling. Changing the way we describe things to ourselves is a common form of therapy known as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. It is based on: “the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a negative cycle.” Consider describing an emotion as ‘devastating’ or ‘sad’. The words used to describe them influence the intensity, framing the emotion and its context.  

Additionally, sharing these emotions with others can prompt a response that can validate, or further influence the intensity and context. Just as with the different words for love in Ancient Greek, different cultures and languages can have unique words, idioms or metaphors for particular feelings. These cultural influences offer a clear culture specific example of how language shapes perception. It also prompts the question: how does culture shape language, and what came first? We’ll explore this a bit further in the article.

Formal vs Informal Language

The American approach to English is well known for its laid-back, informal approach, while the German and French languages are common examples given when discussing formal language. Which approach to use is not always clear, but In an informal language, conversation is often casual, the use of titles is not often enforced and the tone is more personal. In formal language, titles are often used and there are even specific words used to demonstrate hierarchical differences and/or respect. When speaking in a language that prompts such demonstrations, it makes sense that more attention and consideration might be given to those who receive honorifics. This will have an impact on how people view those in a position to receive such linguistic considerations. 

Gendered Language 

38% of the world speaks a gendered language as their mother-tongue. With a number that high, its impact must be understood. Researchers agree and their work has produced some interesting results. 

In one study, researchers measured the different adjectives used to describe a bridge in both German and Spanish. In German bridge is a feminine word, while it is masculine in Spanish. The study found that Germans used words such as “beautiful, elegant and fragile” and the Spanish used words such as “towering, dangerous and strong”.  

There are three typical divisions when classifying languages as gendered, or not. A gendered language is one that has gendered nouns and pronouns. Arabic, French, Russian and Spanish are common examples. In Spanish, a masculine noun will often end with an ‘o’, while feminine nouns end with ‘a’. Libro, meaning book, is masculine while mesa, meaning table, is feminine. This is true for pronouns as well, hermana and hermano are sister and brother, respectively. 

Another classification is that of genderless, where nouns and pronouns do not mark gender, such as the Japanese or Finnish languages. In Finnish, they use the pronoun ‘hän’ for he, or she. The last classification is for those languages that use gendered pronouns, but not gendered nouns. English and Dutch are well-known illustrations for this classification. In English we use either he or she, depending on the gender of the subject. Some gendered languages are starting to develop genderless words, while not yet common across the world, there are some good examples. In Sweden, ‘hen’ is a gender-neutral pronoun being used alongside ‘han’ (he) and ‘hon’ (she). Hen has since become commonly used in Sweden, so much so that researchers say it has led to new ideas in society. When someone is introduced to another without gender, less assumptions may be made, further contributing to the perception of that person. 

Other research has found that cultures which use a gendered language have higher levels of gender inequality than those cultures which speak genderless languages. Building on this, a study which followed natives of a gendered language moving to the United States, found that households made up of a man and a woman, were more likely to divide house-hold tasks based on if the relevant noun was masculine or feminine. 

Intonation 

The Mandarin language is a tonal language, where intonation and pitch are vital for clear communication. Some words have drastically different meanings, all while sounding very similar. Some examples of that can be found here. Because of this, speakers of Mandarin are conditioned to pay attention to intonation and pitch, more so than English speakers. This has an impact of allowing them to hear things in people’s voices that others might miss. For example, a bi-lingual Mandarin-English speaker might hear subtle signs of emotion from their friends that others might miss. 

Differing Character Traits and Culture 

This also ties into theories which state that people who speak more than one language, can develop a different personality in each language they speak. One study examined English-Spanish bilingual people while comparing them to monolingual speakers of both languages. They found mono-lingual speakers of American-English tend to be more extroverted than monolingual speakers of Mexican-Spanish. Additionally when the bilingual speakers spoke in Spanish they were seen to have been less extroverted compared to when they would switch to English. 

The Japanese language is known for its indirect communication. People will not state their message directly, rather they let the recipients figure it out through social and non-verbal cues. One example of this is their dislike of rejecting something totally. Instead, they will find other ways to do so, without using the word ‘no’. There will be nuances and cues that one should pay attention to in order to understand what message is being sent. This subtle approach to communication creates a nuanced understanding of people and their messages, especially when compared to the more direct style of communication often seen in Europe and North America. There is much, much more that can be said on the cultural influence on language, but that will be explored in an upcoming article. 

The cultural influence of a language has been seen to impact the values that develop alongside language. For example, Mandarin features many idioms around the theme of family, which is highly important in their culture. Someone who speaks the language may have their perceptions of family life, and the value they attach to it, influenced due to high engagement with the topic.  

Also in Mandarin are the differing, descriptive nouns for various family members. If there was a family of three sisters, the middle child has a different name for each sister, translating to younger sister and older sister. This is the same for brothers. and there are even different nouns to make it clear when a grandparent is paternal or maternal. Another example of cultural differences in language is the Dutch use of ‘gezin’ and ‘familie’. Gezin is one’s nuclear family, often parents and siblings. Familie is sometimes used interchangeably, but is specifically used to label a group of blood relatives. 

While the question remains if it is truly the development of another personality, or just the adaptation to the cultural norms of another language, it is clear that the use of language does impact our perceptions. 

Positives of multilingal teams 

The impacts of language on perception might create a sense of worry when someone might need to work or live with people of different cultures and languages. However, while this can bring some challenges, they are far from being overwhelming. For example, if two people who come from different backgrounds and linguistically only share a non-native language, they will face unique challenges. Working to establish equity in their communication can be further supported by establishing awareness for their differences. Leveraging those differences in an equitable and inclusive fashion is the key. In fact there are measurable individual, team, and organisational benefits from mindfully managed multicultural and multilingual environments. To give you a taste of some of the many positives, there are noticeable increases in collaboration, innovation, customer and employee satisfaction, as well as increased feelings of inclusion and both personal and organisational development. Overcoming language barriers creates a sustainable competitive edge in any context. Language and cultural fluency gaps can and should be addressed through a mix of language courses and intercultural competence training. 

At Language Partners/BBI Communication we have dedicated ourselves to providing impactful, high quality trainings focusing on both language & communication skills, and intercultural communication. We understand the nuanced challenges and benefits that multicultural and multilingual organisations face. With our human-centric approach, we strive to help cross both cultural and language fluency gaps, allowing people to work together effectively and with civility and understanding. Curious to know more? Book a free 30-minute chat to talk about how we might work together to leverage culture and communication differences into business advantages.

Paul Van Zanten
Paul is an American intercultural communications professional living in the Netherlands and connecting with his Dutch roots. With a passion for travel, as well as gaining new perspectives and experiences, Paul aims to further his growth, as well as that of others at Language Partners.

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