They say you are what you eat. But you can also be a product of your native language.
The confines and liberations of each language are inextricably linked to the environment in which it has evolved.
For example, the Sami language has 180 words relating to ice and snow and up to 100 separate words meaning reindeer, according to a study by Ole Henrik Magga in 2006. Very convenient, since the language is based primarily in Sweden, Finland and Norway, countries where these three things are in abundance.
So how does our language shape us and how does our environment guide our language? The answer, it seems, could be resting in the contentions of Whorfianism.
What is Whorfianism?
This is the theory purporting that all observers are not led by the same physical proof to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic histories are similar.
The early 20th-century US linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf helped to mould the idea that language enables us to hold our own notions of the nature of reality. So, his argument continues, those who speak different languages reside in separate conceptual universes.
Some experts believe that Whorfianism, or linguistic relativity, not only affects our moral decisions, but even things such as our ability to save for a rainy day or our in-built ability to navigate.
A recent study exploring the link between language and moral decisions found that people are more likely to be pragmatic and less ruled by emotional considerations when thinking in foreign languages.
The universities of Chicago and Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra tested 397 native Spanish speakers with English for their secondary language, and a further 328 native English speakers who had Spanish for their secondary language.
The study found that moral decisions might hinge upon whether or not a person is employing their native language.
Posing the question of whether you could directly sacrifice the life of one person to save five, it found that people are more likely to act for a situation’s common good when not thinking in their own tongue.
Professor Boaz Keysar, from the Chicago end of the study, said the results could have “world implications”.
It might affect the way jury members behave if they sit in a trial using their secondary language rather than their primary one, Keysar said.
He adds that people aren’t so afraid or emotionally affected about lives lost while thinking in their second language.
Keysar concluded that moral choices can be influenced by which language they are taken in.
Ability to save
The Germans and Chinese have proven themselves to be disciplined savers, judging by their healthy economies.
Could it all be just a question of linguistics?
A study by American Economic Review argues that it could have some sway over such trends.
The report says the inability of Americans to stash their cash in a savings account could have something to do with the fact that they speak English, which is a “strong-future” language.
This compares with “weak-future languages” such as Mandarin, German and Japan, all traditionally renowned to be sound savers.
Weak-future languages treat future and present identically. They rely instead on context. Such lack of linguistic distinction, Chen claims, might make tomorrow appear closer because it is spoken about in the same way as the present.
Strong-future tongues, conversely, separate the now (“it’s raining”) from the future (“it’ll rain”).
Behavioural economist Keith Chen, from the Los Angeles-based University of California, wrote a paper on the subject last year.
He said weak-future speakers saved 45% more than strong-future speakers, regardless of which country they lived in.
Why? Maybe because strong-future languages make tomorrow appear so far away.
Many of us rely on sat-navs nowadays. But imagine if the efficiency of your own built-in compass depended on the number of words you had for directions.
Under the laws of Whorfianism, you don’t have to.
The Pormpuraaw, an Aboriginal community in Australia, have no words covering right and left. Yet they are better natural navigators than English-speaking Australians, according to a Psychological Science report.
How so? Because they see timelines in terms of travelling through the different directions on the compass. The Pormpuraaw say things such as: “Is that a burn on your north-northeast arm?” This greater spatial orientation gives the tribe a head-start over the ordinary English-speaking Joe who thinks in terms of left and right.
Other examples of how linguistics can impact upon thinking and behaviour:
Russian speakers have been proven to visually discriminate between different gradations of blue. Why? Because they have a lot more words describing both dark and light blues than most other languages.
Conversely, the Zuni language of New Mexico, which is used by around 10,000 people, does not have separate words for yellow and orange. Guess what? They have difficulties distinguishing between the two.
Similarly, Namibia’s indigenous Himba people only have words for five different colours, which can sometimes impact on their judgement on different hues.
The Brazilian Amazon Piraha tribe have challenges with exact quantities. That’s because its members use expressions such as several and few instead of precise numbers. They would give a poor showing in the numbers round of Countdown.
One of the best fictional examples of how a paucity or excess of language can effect environment comes in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
The book’s oppressive government twigged that, because people formulate ideas according to the words in their possession, it follows that the greater number of words at a person’s disposal, the more free thoughts a person can enjoy.
Big Brother’s Newspeak system set about culling huge swathes of the English vocabulary to reduce the amount of words a person could use to express themselves.
How did it do this? By applying affixes to standard words.
Thus, a word would be preceded by “un-” if it meant the opposite, by “plus-” if it was an inflated version of that word, and by “doubleplus-” for something that was an exaggerated variety of that word.
So, for example, bad would be “ungood”, very good would be “plusgood”, and extremely good would be “doubleplusgood”.
Even object words were limited to avoid any embellished description; everything kept to basics, with grey language for a grey world creating an even greyer one.
Some social media critics have suggested that Twitter is comparatively restrictive in that it only gives users 140 characters to play with. This has resulted in an explosion of acronyms and initialisms.
One last thought on Whorf’s theory: the counterargument runs “How could we learn anything if we could not think of realities for which we have no words?” But since babies seem to manage it perfectly well, there is clearly much more to perceiving reality than the understanding and processing of language.