Know Your Medium, Part 1

The concept behind Linguistic Relativity1 has been around for quite a long time (predictably, Greek philosophers had musings on the topic). Summarised, it is the idea that the language we speak shapes the way we think.

Now that sounds fairly reasonable. But it has caused controversy when it has been presented as linguistic determinism; that your language restricts what you are able to think. In this form, it is argued that if a language has no word for something, then people who speak that language cannot conceive of that thing. English itself is a fantastic counter to this—for example, we had no word for Schadenfreude, so we nabbed3 it from German.

The evidence does support, however, that particular concepts become easier/harder to consider/discuss in different languages. And again, this is fairly intuitive—it’s harder to express yourself to others if you lack the vocabulary4. Where I find it particularly interesting, though, is the ways the concept applies to other forms of communication. For example, the same tune could be expressed differently for different instruments (guitar chord diagrams for example).

One of my jobs has been (essentially) training problem-solving, and an important tool in solving any problem is notation. If you’re faced with a problem like:

My grandson is about as many days as my son in weeks, and my grandson is as many months as I am in years. My grandson, my son and I together are 120 years. Can you tell me my age in years?

You may find it much easier to work with (and ultimately solve) once you translate it (where g, s, and i are the grandson, son, and “I”‘s ages respectively)5:

g x 365 = s x 52
g x 12 = i
g + s + i = 120

Where am I going with this? The point is that any form of communication involves a vocabulary (in the more general sense), which will be more accommodating to some ideas than others. I plan to delve into some more specific examples (comparing books and movies, as I am wont to do), but this has gotten long enough (and I’m getting muddled with my footnote numbering), so that will have to wait for next time. Ciao6.


1 You may have heard of it as the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, an honourific title at best as the two (Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf2) never directly collaborated.

2 Whorf also helped popularise the famous not-really-a-fact about Inuit having many different words for snow.

3 I’ve always liked James Nicoll’s quote: “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

4 Case in point, 2-year-olds. Eternally frustrated that Mum and Dad just don’t seem to get them. Some would argue this phase lasts about 18 years. Others would say it never ends.

5 If you’re interested, their ages (in years, rounding to the nearest year) are 6 (grandson), 42 (son), and 72 (“I”).

6 In English it means “goodbye”, but it was purloined from (Venetian) Italian where it could be used as either greeting or farewell. A more literal translation might be “at your service”. Just thought you might like to know that.