Language & Perception: A Human Construct that Shapes Reality
The invention of words and its power to create our perception
Language is a universal tool that humans use to communicate their thoughts efficiently, projecting outwardly for others to absorb and process. Language gave us the ability to teach and learn in our communities, producing the many cultures scattered through the world. Each language represents a cluster of people grouped together by their common ancestry, their rituals and cultures that evolved with them through millennia.
The question is, with the multitude of languages there are in the world, 7,000 to be precise, does this influence our perception? Do the words we use convey different meanings to those who use another language as their primary source of communication? Does that mean in hindsight that our words create our perception?
What is perception, but the ability to process in our mind what we perceive through our eyes and translate into words that we have been taught from infancy. We cannot use words unknown to us, so it stands to reason that our language has a strong influence on how we view the world. Words create our perception. Or vice versa.
What do I mean when I say that words create our perception? You, the reader, may think I’m off my rocker, but that is not the case. There have been studies conducted in the past several decades that suggest that our language, whatever language you may speak, has a direct influence on how you perceive the world around you.
How did I gain this knowledge? Well, through YouTube, of course, where you can scroll through various videos to find whatever fancies your interest. It just so happens that being a potential Linguistic student, language is of great interest to me, so I happened upon a video that discussed and summarized some of the studies and their findings.
Verifying the information through various scientific articles and a speech conducted on a Ted talk video, I feel comfortable in elaborating the various findings of these studies that decipher the differences in how one set of people view the same object differently from another set of people.
The studies fall under the topic of Linguistic Relativity, and are investigated by professional psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, and cognitive scientists, in hopes to understand the effects language has on thoughts, or thoughts has on language.
According to the video and their sources, there were four individual studies conducted on a select group with the results providing evidence to the theory that language is wholly responsible for the perception of our environment.
- What time is it?
In our society, time is crucial. We keep track of everything, marking the length of time for numerous purposes. It’s a race to get to the finish line. Who can achieve more within a short period of time? We worry about upcoming medical appointments, birthday parties, baby showers, holiday seasons, and getting older as time passes.
But let me ask you a question, how do you measure time? Depending on your primary language, you may measure time in a completely different manner from those who do not share your language.
In my research, I discovered English is most definitely my predominantly primary language. There is a prime example of it in this very subtopic of time. When I used “short period of time” I was unintentionally giving myself away as an English speaker.
To break it down, English speakers tend to use length as a measure of time duration such as “It was a short class period, but the day felt long,” whereas a Greek or Spanish speaker would use amount as a measurement of time, using descriptive words such as little, big or much.
Another difference can be found when describing past and future events. Those who speak English have an inclination to apply back vs forward metaphors when describing said events. For example, “I’m looking forward to meeting your family” and “I’ve fallen behind in my classes because I missed a day.” Or like a previous sentence I inadvertently wrote earlier, “We worry about upcoming medical appointments…”
On the other hand, a Mandarin Chinese speaker can use both the back vs forward and up vs down metaphors when describing past and future events, with the back vs forward metaphors being similar to the English language. The up vs down metaphors are significantly employed when describing an order of events, up being for earlier events and down for later events.
Lastly, what about those who do not have a general idea of the notion of time. Linguistic Relativity is not a new term. It was invented by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930's as he studied the Hopi tribe and their language. He discovered that they had no words to measure time, or even the word time itself. It is because of this discovery that Linguistic Relativity became a theory that has gone on to be studied and debated as a genuine and credible source of curiosity by scholars.
2. What color do you see?
For many, you would say blue, right? Most often then not, blue would be the answer. However, in Russia, native speakers have separate names for the different shades of blue. Hence, their answer would not be the same as all the other languages. In particular, most English speakers would naturally state blue. Russian speakers would distinguish the different shade of blue, answering immediately with the word given for that color in their language.
If you are struggling to understand this concept, let me dive deeper and provide another example for us native English speakers. In the English language, we have the words orange and yellow to utilize when identifying items of these colors. However, in the US, it was discovered by Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg, two colleagues of Benjamin Whorf, that the indigenous Zuni tribe do not have names for these two colors, therefore, struggled to remember and differentiate these colors when tested against English speakers.
In another study, two groups of people, English speakers and the Berinmo of Papua New Guinea were tested to identify the color boundaries on a rainbow. The result indicated that the Berinmo were only able to identify five basic colors while English speakers were able to identify eight basic colors, the divergence between the two were differentiating between the blue and green spectrum. These results suggest that language is fundamental in our perception of reality, exercised through categorizing and labeling the pieces broken down from reality.
3. Describe this image using adjectives.
I’m sorry English speakers, but this one goes to those whose native tongue derives from Europe, where their language is notorious for utilizing grammatical gender. This means that each noun is assigned a gender, such as a door, a bed, or even a watch.
English and some other languages, such as Japanese, do not use grammatical gender in their language, hence, their description of this image or any image are found to be quite random.
For those whose language does originate from a European country, what adjectives did you use to describe this image. Were the adjectives shown to have more feminine or masculine attributes?
Depending on what primary language you use, it has been tested that the grammatical gender of that language has an influence on how material objects are perceived. Using two languages that have opposite grammatical genders for the selected items, they found that the same item was described in the gender that is assigned to their language.
A key was described as hard, jagged, heavy and useful by German speakers yet was described as lovely, little, intricate and shiny by Spanish speakers. Another example had them describe a bridge, with German speakers describing it with feminine terms such as elegant, fragile and slender while Spanish speakers used descriptive masculine terms, stating that the bridge was strong, sturdy and dangerous.
Even though all of these tests were conducted in English, the primary language had a greater influence on how they perceived these images.
4. On the basis of where you are at, which cardinal direction are you facing while reading this article? East, West, South, or North?
If you are like me, you won’t be able to answer right off the top of your head. Why? Because we aren’t wired like that. It isn’t a necessity to use cardinal directions because our language provides words that necessitate our minds to understand without knowing our physical direction related to the sun. We would rather use, left or right, in front or behind.
However, an Australian aboriginal group referred to as Kuuk Thaayorre would know the answer to this question immediately. Their language incorporates cardinal directions in reference to themselves and other items seen, built by a culture and language structure adapted to orient themselves as a human compass.
This group cannot delineate right from left as they do not have the words to polarize these two separate indicators of directions utilized by other languages. Rather than say this is my right foot or left hand, these individuals would state this is my northeast hand and my southwest foot.
As stated by Lera Boroditsky in her Ted Talk speech, humans can orient themselves if their language and culture train them to do so. No excuses!
Other animals can orient themselves fully, and it was long believed by scientists that humans did not have this ability, but with this revelation it appears it is just a difference in training, or rather perception.
If language has the ability to shape one’s perception, then is it possible to reshape your perception by learning another language. That is the question.
And if some languages don’t have words for things that other languages do have, does that mean that there is much more to be deciphered in the future that is yet to be categorized, labeled and given a name. For if one language does not have a word for numbers, colors, and the like, who's to say that the language you are speaking right now may be lacking a word that is known in another language, or quite possibly not yet perceived in any language to this date.
With many languages going extinct, it’s entirely possible that they have a word for something that has not been perceived in other languages, and it would be a shame for it to die and never be known.
If you found this information thoroughly enjoyable I would suggest you to click on the linked YouTube videos within this article to acquire an even more detailed research on this interesting subject. There was much I left out and it would deprive you of more enticing pieces of information discussed within the videos, much more in depth and meticulous than mentioned here.
My Thoughts and Opinions Based on This Information:
As a potential linguist and novice writer, words are fundamental to my prospective future. I find it fascinating to discover that words are perceived differently on the basis of one’s primary language.
It brings to light the meaning behind the different perceptions and interpretations from the same stories, or images viewed by a diverse audience. They are truly seeing something different from the original creator’s intent.
It also raises the issue of incorporating terminology that won’t get lost in translation so that there won’t be any misunderstandings between the creator of the content and their intended audience. What one may see as a well intended story, another may perceive as malicious solely based on the words utilized in telling the story.
I believe it is important to learn a varied amount of languages, or at least expose oneself to another language, with the purpose of gaining a new perspective and understanding through those languages.
Locking oneself from learning and experiencing another language and culture closes them off from gaining a broader perspective and does a great disservice to humanity by isolating diversity that could otherwise resolve differences in the grander scheme of things.
Although I don’t speak a second language fluently, I was raised and exposed to a second language as a child, learning the different nuances and enunciation behind the native language of my mother. In retrospect of this newly obtained information, I received a different perception of the world around me, and I am grateful that I grew up in a bilingual household.
Before I finish, let me leave you with a quote from a very popular book that mystified me when I was young:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. -John 1:1
This quote has always interested me, even though I don’t consider myself religious. In my eyes, it’s related to a being perceiving themselves through ‘word.’ Perhaps, it's one of the many drawing factors of my interest in linguistics.
I believe that language is an integral part of our own self awareness. When we think, we usually ‘hear’ our thoughts in the format of the language we have been conditioned to use, or perhaps see images in our mind’s eye, but those too, have labels in the format of words.
In the end, I learned that words matter. They shape my perception, and through that perception lead me to form words that in turn shape your perception through your own interpretation of those words, just as you are doing right now.
Thank you for reaching to the bottom of this page. I am grateful to you for spending your time reading to the end. If you thoroughly enjoyed or learned something new by the end of this article, please do not be shy and click the heart, share on social media, and tip if you want to.
Your readership is greatly appreciated and does not go unnoticed. It motivates me to keep producing more content for those readers. I have many ideas tumbling around in my head for future content, fiction and nonfiction, and your response to the content through views and hearts is a great motivator to keep going. I have another article in the works alongside this one, so please be on the lookout and check it out when it is published. Thank you for providing me the chance to be a part of your life through these words. Much love!