30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011
Thoughts & Language
You’ve probably heard the myth about Eskimos being able to tell the difference between countless types of snow. According to the Sapir—Whorf hypothesis (named after the US linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf), the reason for this proverbial ability is that Eskimos have many more words for snow than do speakers of other languages. By this account, the words we have at our disposal literally determine what we are capable of thinking and perceiving. The idea proved hugely influential for many decades after Whorf first proposed it in MIT’s Technology Review magazine in 1940. By the 1990s, however, the hypothesis was no longer taken seriously in mainstream circles. The psychologist Steven Pinker even wrote an ’obituary’ for it in his 1994 book The Language Instinct. Of course if we were only able to think of things for which we had the words, how would we ever learn language in the first place? The Eskimo myth has it the wrong way around — the proverbial Eskimo can’t tell snow types apart because of all the snow words she knows; she uses more snow words because she’s learned to recognize different snow types.
We can’t think about concepts for which we lack the words.
Although language doesn’t determine what we’re capable of thinking about, there’s no doubt that the conventions of different languages do affect our habits of thought. Consider languages that oblige speakers to attribute a gender to objects. It’s been shown that speakers of those languages come to see different objects as more feminine or masculine in line with their language’s gender attribution conventions.
THE COGNITIVE REVOLUTION
Did you develop a self-concept and then learn the word ’I’ or vice versa? The Sapir—Whorf hypothesis argues that the word came first.