Language: the Limits of my World?

[Find out more about this column, “The Menu is not the Meal”by Sophie Morris]

Language defines the way we think, a Mentonese student, Clemens Luckner claimed last year during his speech on the Greek debt crisis during TedX event on our campus. Since the words for “debt” and for “guilt” both translate to Schuld in German, this means that “financial debt always has this connotation […] there’s something a little bit shady about it”. So because of the way the German language works, they are less likely than others to ‘forgive’ the Greek of their debt, and, due to this, the Germans are at fault for the catastrophe that was the financial mess in Greece. As he argued.. “The way that we think has imposed austerity on the Greek people”. Now, I will not argue about the details of exactly what led to the Greek debt crisis. Rather, I am questioning whether we can really claim that because the German words for guilt and debt are the same, Germans are incapable of differentiating between the two.

Clemens is not alone in his assumption. We can date the idea that language, thought, and our perception of the world are intertwined all the way back to Plato and Kant. This principle, referred to as linguistic relativity by linguists and anthropologists, developed radically in the 1930s with the Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis. This hypothesis claims that if a language does not have a word for a concept, it is impossible for speakers of that language to understand that concept. Similarly, if a distinction exists in a language, its speakers will be more able to make that distinction than those whose languages do not.

Admittedly, this is not completely false. In the English language, among others, there are eleven basic colours: white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and grey. These are the colours that we have deemed important enough to give a name, the ones we all learn in primary school. They are presented to us like some sort of universal fact. However, Russian speakers have twelve colours, as they make a distinction between sky blue and dark blue. Most languages have fewer colours – some only have dark, light, and red. And- yes- studies have shown that, for example, Russian speakers can distinguish more easily between light blue and dark blue than those who consider blue one colour. Speakers of languages that have more than three colours are generally better at distinguishing them than speakers of languages with only three colours. So it is true that, when there are words to help us process situations, we are quicker at doing so because we have the language to match the concepts we are presented with, and this helps us make sense of the world better.

However, before we immediately point to this study as the ultimate proof that language determines thought and perception, we must pause to think for a moment. Are we really saying that all of us (with the exception of those of us on campus who speak Russian) are unable to see the difference between lighter and darker shades of blue? It might not be ingrained in us like it is for Russian speakers, but we are able to do it without great difficulty.

Ok, but colours are boring. Let’s talk about love for a second.

Most of us are familiar with the French language, but even those among us who are not know the phrase “Je t’aime”. In French, there is no difference between ‘aimer’ in the sense of liking someone and ‘aimer’ in the sense of loving someone. Of course, it is always clear from the context which one is meant – so “Je t’aime” will be more romantic whereas “je t’aime bien” or “j’aime ça” would be less so. Even if there are times when confusion might arise, they are few and far between. Now, given that French is internationally renowned for being ‘la langue d’amour’, I think few would claim that the French are unable to perceive the difference between platonic “aimer” and romantic “aimer”.

Now, I am aware that Clemens (and Mr. Sapir and Mr. Whorf) was not saying that Germans are unable to differentiate between the concepts of guilt and debt. They clearly are. What he was saying is that when German speakers say that someone is indebted to them, there are negative connotations.

But doesn’t debt always have negative connotations? Even in English, where debt and guilt are two very distinct words and very distinct concepts, telling someone “You owe Germany 56 billion Euros” is never a positive thing.

It is, of course, plausible that these two German words made the debt crisis worse. Maybe the negative connotation IS worse in German? Be that as it may, we have to remember that, just because something is plausible does not mean it is definitively true without being tested. To use the example of Guy Deutscher, it is then also plausible that speaking Swedish makes your hair blond and speaking Italian makes your hair brown. Plausibility does not equal truth. Correlation does not equal causation.

Should we want to apply Sapir-Whorfian logic, we have to accept its implications. If it is indeed true that the German word “Schuld” limits their ability to distinguish between debt and guilt, and that this actually significantly affects their view of the world, then we must accept that the French cannot differentiate between liking and loving, or that most of the world’s population is significantly worse than Russians at seeing the difference between light and dark blue.

We also need to acknowledge the broader consequences of Sapir-Whorfian logic, since we are not just talking about different perceptions of colour and nuances of french affection. John McWhorter, in his book “The Language Hoax”, makes the excellent point that saying that a ‘primitive’ language makes speakers of that language ‘primitive’ thinkers is a very racist and slippery slope that we should really avoid.

You could say that it is ridiculous to deny the relationship between language and perception of the world, but that is not what I am arguing here. I just believe the relationship is more complex than presented up until now. Maybe it is not that the German language by chance had the same word for debt and guilt, and this made the concepts quite close in German. Maybe, in reality, the two concepts were quite close and, as a result, shared the same word?

So yes, language and thought are related. People might pay more attention to certain things or might be able to differentiate between two shades more quickly than others. But does that mean that the Germans are less likely to see the difference between two concepts that use the same word? Purely because the word is the same? Maybe. Reliable research on this topic is hard to come by.

But when it comes to claims about the cause of an international crisis, we need to make sure that we do not confuse linguistic accidents and coincidences with causality, and speculation with actual proof.

Albeit a tenuous connection between language and perception, language does not dictate or limit our thoughts. I think we will all be able to answer Deutscher’s question: “Do ignorant folk who have never heard of ‘Schadenfreude’ find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune?”

For a more detailed discussion of these topics, see “The Language Hoax” by John McWhorter and “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher.

Don’t forget to check out Clemens’ thought-provoking Ted Talk !

1 Comment

  • Avatar Greg Bond says:

    Dear Sophie
    Great article, really enjoyed it. Shows us that matters are more complex than sometimes meets the eye and asks us to reserve judgement, while also acknowledging that people are smarter than we think and can very well make distinctions between different uses of the same word. Thanks very much.
    Greg Bond

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