Article for Sterling

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis theorises that the verbal language(s) a human uses to communicate can affect what it is that they communicate due to the cultural and historical influences on the vocabulary and construction of the language. When a human thinks, they think in a language. If this language has been formulated, either purposefully or inadvertently, to express certain ideas and aspects of humanity in specific ways, then the way the human thinks will be consequentially influenced by it. In short, the structure of the language a human speaks will directly influence the human’s thoughts, actions, and what it is that they communicate. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said in his work Tracatus Logico-Philosophicus that “Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized”- that as well as facilitating inter-human communication, language can also be considered an obstacle, and when one puts thought into language, it has to be modified and compromised in order to be communicated. When thought is spoken, it is shaped by the limitations of having to use language.

There are infinitesimal relations between language and culture, the subtlest being things like the relationship between the meaning of what is being spoken and the shapes the mouth makes when it is said, and the most obvious being prohibited or illegal words or sentences (e.g. it is a criminal offence to say “sieg heil” or “heil Hitler”, for obvious cultural reasons). If we were to use different music genres as a metaphor for the cultural differences in speech, one could imagine that even though two pieces of sheet music could look very similar, there could be many notes in common, when played the two pieces of music can sound entirely different and convey very different emotions or meanings.

Language is something fluid, in constant flux and never static or permanent. No languages are the same as they were a thousand years ago, despite the possibility that they may be technically the same language, or even the same as they were yesterday. The reason for this is that human cultures are constantly evolving and progressing. Two separate languages may seem entirely different, but may have been one and the same a couple of thousand years ago, for example, the Swedish word for “war” is “krig”, pronounced and written almost exactly the same as the German word for “war”, “krieg”, however both the English word “war” (which comes from the same word as the French “guerre”) and the Swedish and German “krig” and “krieg” are derived from the same language. By studying the etymology of words, we can see where cultural effects have shifted languages to favour certain words over others. “War” and “guerre” come from the word “werso” (“confusion”, “strife”) and “krig” and “krieg” come from “krig” (“defiance”, “stubbornness”), which were both words of the Proto-Germanic language from which English, Swedish and modern German all stem, and used interchangeably when used to mean “war”. The fact that modern German and Swedish took the more negative word which would imply anger and a lack of co-operation, where the English took the more euphemistic word may be accounted to the fact that Germany and Sweden are more climatically drastic than Britain and France, can only be explained by cultural differences at the time.

Our languages are one of the facets by which we identify ourselves culturally (along with gender, race, religion, sexuality etc.). Culture is not an individual possession but rather an intangible, abstract and often subconscious social concept, and so it is simultaneously unifying and divisive. Language is a very apparent factor in cultural assimilation, and conversely linguistic iconoclasm such as the Nazi ceremonious burning of un-German books, particularly those written by Jews, in a bid to “purify” the German culture and rid it of the influences of other cultures, and also to erase from German history any ideas that did not serve to reinforce the Nazi ideology. Language is the key ingredient to cultural assimilation, which is why the British Anglification of Ireland and the Irish language, especially in place names, played such an important role in the British taking over of Northern Ireland. Not only was this another prime example of linguistic iconoclasm, but there was the added aspect of having another language imposed to replace that of the culture being supplanted.

As demonstrated to its (rather cliché however nonetheless relevant) distilled finest, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is particularly relevant in George Orwell’s 1984, where the invented language of “Newspeak” is enforced with a gentle fist upon the people, in a bid to control them via their language- by creating a language which does not include words to describe negativity (such as violence), they hope to bring about a culture which does not acknowledge negativity, and so to prohibit the people from considering committing crime, or doing anything immoral- “if it can’t be said, then it can’t be thought”.

Sometimes, one’s language is not enough to express oneself. It doesn’t have to be like this. I do not need to stress the might of language, with any luck I have already circumlocuted that, but I will say this- one can do as much as is humanly possible to master every language, however you will still be imprisoned by having to process your communications via the shape of lexicon. Human beings are faced with a unique compromise- the sacrifice of self-expression in exchange with the ability to communicate with others, but equally uniquely, humans are faced with the concept of culture: greatly encumbering to the tangible acts of communication (the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), but most fundamentally critical to whatever essence of humanity from whence “communication” makes berth, that desire to master the reciprocal act of sharing, to be alike and to know that you are this thing called “human”.