Language and Psychological Reality

I speak a language which lets the speakers choose if they want to show respect to someone while talking about them – just by making everything in plural. You want to use a pronoun to refer to them? Make it plural! There’s a verb for that person’s action? Make that plural as well! And Voila! I’ve have paid my due respect! It’s that easy.

Now, the interesting part is, as kids, the speakers of my language were generally taught to speak with such respect-showing forms while talking to or about our fathers, grandfathers, (paternal) uncles, or father’s friends etc. BUT not when it came to our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, (maternal) uncles, or mother’s friends. We learn to refer to them to just like we would refer to our friends or siblings! We learned this as a part of learning how to talk. So, that’s how we learned things to be.

Talk about deep-rooted patriarchy!

But, other than that, what instances like these makes us want to believe in, is relativism–the relation between our language and our reality.

If you have seen the movie ‘Arrival’, you probably have an idea what it is. For those who haven’t, Relativism is a linguistic school of thought, based on the approach that ‘language determines the world view’.  If you are more interested in reading about this, you can look up for “Linguistic Relativity” or “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” on the internet.

Now, as is usual for a school of thought, Relativism has its share of debates, and studies and papers published for and against it.

However, for now, even if we don’t take the extreme view that ‘language determines world view’, I hope, from the above example we can entertain the possibility that language at least influences our thought.

Linguistic Relativity--Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

And well, there are other kinds of things too!

Like, if the language you grew up with categorizes things or actions in a certain way, you believe that there are such categories. For example, if your language differentiates between shade (of a tree) and shadow, they are going to be different for you. But if your language doesn’t make such a distinction, you’re likely to think that they are the same thing.

Or if your language has a separate word for lazing around on the bed, you are likely to counter your friend who says ‘Oh, you are up!’, when they see your eyes open; because unfortunately their language doesn’t have such a category.

I confess. My language (Marathi) has such a word (लोळणे), but Hindi doesn’t; and I have had the above described argument with her!

It also applies to more serious matters, like love. I can say ‘I love vegetables.’ in English, but it sounds a bit awkward in languages closer home – which have shaped my thoughts about love. As a result it makes me very conscious about using the word, at times. I am sure, I may not be the only one on this.

Such examples, however small, make you want to believe that language does have some influence on the way you think. And at the end of the day, if it is influencing the way we think, it is important. We as individuals may not really be able control the way the whole language is, or the way it should change. But we can surely watch what we speak. We can be sensitive to the fact that it may mean something different for someone who wasn’t brought up with the same language as you.

And lastly, we can be sensitive to what we want to mean?


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