You Are What You Say You Are

Out Of The Deep End

14-01-2022 • 22 mins

006 – Show Notes

Amy Adams in the film, Arrival, plays Louise Banks, a linguist who discovers how thinking in a different language changes the way she is able to think, and thus allows her to have visions of the past and future. This idea is an extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, where “Language doesn’t just give people a way to express their thoughts, but may even determine their thoughts.” In other words, can we change our thinking by changing our language? Is our ability to think determined by our language?

Consider this…how do you think? Do you think in a language other than your native tongue? If English is your first language, you think using English grammar and English words. If you are bi-lingual, you might think in both languages. But you still think in language. So…what happens if we do not have a language? What if we are born deaf, or blind and deaf? Are we then not able to think?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is controversial today because there is just enough truth in it to be warranted but not enough for it to be confirmed. We know that babies think before they have language. The blind and deaf are able to think before they acquire language. So, who does language then affect our thinking?

There is a popular analogy at the root of this controversy that has to do with the number of words in a language to describe snow. The Inuit people are said to have forty to fifty words for snow. How many do you know? Common English words for snow include, powdery, slushy, crunchy, drifty, icy, hard, or crusty. There are twenty-five words for snow in Swedish. A people in the far north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia have one hundred and eighty. But here’s a part of the controversy. How many of those words are unique words? And how many of those words are contractions or compounding words, such as how we might say a road is icy or that it has black ice. Both words really refer to the same type condition.

The Scottish have the record. It is reported that they have four hundred and twenty-one words for snow. Now that’s a lot of snow!

Why does this matter? At the heart of the Arrival movie was how language could change Louise Banks’ ability to think. So, I propose a question…if we do not have the word to describe snow, is our ability to understand that snow diminished?

There are two responses. The “yes” camp says that we might not have the right word, but we can still describe the snow using words that we do have. For example, the Inuit use the word muraneq for soft, deep snow. But see what just happened. The English definition has translated their word into words that we understand. We could enhance this definition by using ski words for snow, such as fresh powder.

The “No” camp, however, say that thought is conditioned by society, not by language alone. Words have different meanings even though they might sound the same. Take popular slang words like “cool” and “hot.” Depending upon the context, the meaning of these words change. It’s a “hot day” versus “that person is totally hot!” Or, “You are cool” versus “give me a cool beverage.” Language is more than just a sound. Society shapes the meaning for that sound. When the Inuit use the word muraneq, a societal context is built in to the word that skiers couldn’t possibly understand. It could be that the Inuit see this as an irritating word because this snow condition causes problems while skiers love to hear this word because it promises fun.

There have been modern attempts to delete words from the English language. The idea is that we can change our thinking by deleting the words associated with unwanted realities, such as racism. It has become so present in our society that the mere utterance of certain taboo words will cause someone to be “cancelled” or publicly shamed. How much truth is there in this idea?

Let’s consider a rese