Do we see the world differently based on the languages we speak? Linguistic relativity, a concept spearheaded by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s, claims that differences in language lead to differences in thought. However, this principle is not as straightforward as it seems. Are we unable to think about things we don’t have the words for, or do we lack the words for things because we don’t think about them?
The Guugu Yimithirr language of Australia has fascinated linguists for many reasons. For most languages, our bodies are the focal point for communicating directions. However, speakers of this remote Aboriginal language refer to the position of objects relative to the cardinal points, and not in relation to themselves. Instrumental English words such as “left,” “right,” “in front,” and “behind,” (called egocentric coordinates, because they are dependent on the location of individuals), do not exist in Guugu Yimithirr. If a speaker was conveying an object’s position, they would describe it as being “on the western edge of the floor,” or if they wanted you to bend over, they would tell you to “go south.” These spatial directions would seem quite odd to most of the world, but for Guugu Yimithirr speakers, this is how they conceptualize their world.
What are the effects of living in a culture that is so conscious of space? Native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr grow up with a heightened awareness of their physical environments. Guugu Yimithirr speakers are more skilled at locating and describing objects in an open terrain, while English speakers are better at describing the position of objects relative to others. In addition to highly developed spatial orientation skills, Guugu Yimithirr speakers are forced to have a broader perspective of the world; a world in which they are not the nucleus. For example, when a non-geographic language speaker (e.g., English speakers) point to their chest, we automatically think they are pointing to themselves. When a Guugu Yimithirr speaker performs this same action, they are always pointing to a direction behind them, as if their existence isn’t the most important thing. These seemingly minute differences in vocabulary impact our perception in ways we are just beginning to understand.
Carroll, John B. (ed) 1956. Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press.
Deutscher, Guy. August 26, 2010. “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://nyti.ms/W1kjtS