Perception through Language
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
If we learn about the world through language, then is our world view restricted to what can be described?
The dystopian novel 1984, by George Orwell, tackles this idea with the concept of Newspeak. Newspeak is a reductive, and constantly reducing version of modern day English meant to regulate and constrain the minds of the masses in his fictional world of Oceania. The goal of which is "to narrow the range of thought."(Orwell 67). The novel's character of Syme, a Newspeak writer, describes it's pupose as, "every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller," and finally remarking that, "every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten."
Of course, this is highly theoretical as no governing body is actually mandating the way we think (hopefully). But if you've ever read an older novel, like Dante's Divine Comedy, or play, like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, you'll quickly start to realize that there are actually many more words and word combinations than we're aware of or even understand. Language, or at least the contemporary words and definitions we collectively have memorized and are capable of communicating with, has significantly decreased over time. Because most of us interpret and explain the world using the languages we know, (i.e. we think in English or another language) are we restrained to these languages? The short answer is Yes.
Some language examples of this are:
Guugu Yimithirr from Queensland, Australia does not have front, back, left, and right but instead uses definite directions such as North, South, East, and West. (or the equivalent word). This gives speakers of such language, a better spatial orientation.
German categorizes the sun as being feminine with the moon being masculine, while Spanish inverts the two assigned genders. This leads speakers of German to more often describe(and infer-ably view) the sun as things like "beautiful" and "elegant" while the moon would be seen as "cold" and "powerful", while Spanish is the inverse.
Hopi from Northern Arizona describes time as being a continuous cycle. Where we have come to separate it into segments like minutes, weekdays, and years. This gives English (and other languages with similar wording) better awareness of schedule and punctuality. They also have no words in past tense, therefore it is theorized that they can't "think" in the past.
Berinmo from Papa New Guinea has multiple names for the shades of yellow and certain other colors. This allows them to differentiate colors better and imagine depictions more accurately. Do you imagine the sun as being yellow? They would imagine it as being a specific type of yellow, different from say a sun flower.
How are we restrained to our language?
The way wording affects perception and thought has to do more so with pertinent culture and experience. Some languages don't use definite numbers as much as English does and while it may be harder to compare portions it doesn't mean that they can't, they just don't need to and their language developed around that. Our mind's created language to communicate and understand, not the other way around.
Many of the topics discussed in this come from linguist Lera Boroditsky who recognized the problem with language perception is that, "almost everything we know about the mind has been done by English speakers." Therefore, Science, Literature, and many other subjects are essentially restrained to an English speakers' interpretation of the world. This is just something to remember next time you think about learning a new language or when meeting someone multi-lingual.
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Orwell, George.1984. London: Secker and Warburg, 1949. Print.
“Thinking and Language.” Exploring Psychology, by David G. Myers, Worth Publishers, 2008, p. 381.