Language and Perception. Does Language Shape Our Image of the World?

Ángel Mandujano Mariscal
In the mid-20th Century, the linguistic community talked a lot about the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (Linguistic relativity), a theory posthumously attributed to the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf and which, roughly speaking, postulated that the language we speak determines the way we perceive the world. Nowadays, this hypothesis is no longer taken very seriously because it has been refuted to some extent, but it is still a fascinating idea.

In 1998, American science fiction writer Ted Chiang brought this theory to the world of literature. He wrote Story of Your Life, a story about an alien race that arrives on Earth whose writing system is not linear, like the ours—writing left to right, right to left, top to bottom, or bottom to top and, consequently, processing information linearly as well—but circular. The aliens communicate with circular spots and this non-linearity means that their perception of time is not linear either: it makes them capable of perceiving the past, the present, and the future simultaneously. Maybe this story seems familiar to you because, in 2016, Denis Villeneuve adapted it to film under the title Arrival.

While this story and the idea that language shapes even the perception of time in such a radical way are a bit of an exaggeration, it explains well what the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is about. The words we use to name colors can also account for this: in the 19th Century, German ophthalmologist Hugo Magnus suggested that the ancient Greeks were not able to distinguish the color blue (Sidnam, 2020). He argued that, in his poems, Homer insisted on describing the sea with the word οἶνοψ (oînops), meaning wine-dark; likewise, he used colors such as black and red to describe the color of the sky.

This idea was held for a long time; however, Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher published recently Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (2010), where he claims that it is simply because the Greeks did not consider blue as a color by itself, but as a variation of other colors, so they had no word for it. This does not mean that they did not perceive color as vividly as we do today, but that, for Homer, it was easier to name black and red hues, rather than blue, in the sky and sea.

It is not unusual for a language to have no words to describe certain colors: Nahuatl uses the same word for blue and green, and in German, there is no word for pink or purple, hence purple cabbage is called Rotkohl (red cabbage), and the words used to describe these chromatic hues are borrowed from other languages. There’s no doubt that Spanish lacks words to describe colors that in other languages receive a specific name, but that does not mean that we cannot perceive these colors.

There is also a popular myth that people who inhabit the Arctic have dozens of words to distinguish the colors and states of the snow. I’m not sure if this is true, but I do know that communities create words as they need them (Llorente, 2017). This is why in Spanish we have several words to refer to the growth stages of farm animals, but not for the growth stages of seals: we don’t need them. For the same reason, it is also funny to see people get angry because someone “deforms” language or “invents” words. Which word was not an invention? Precisely, “deformation” of languages such as Latin has given rise to new derived languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.

Although this hypothesis that our language determines the way we perceive the world is not entirely true, there is certainly some truth in it. Although the color thing may turn out to be a mere curiosity, we must not forget this maxim of German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who claims that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
Ángel Mandujano Mariscal is a writer and translator. He studies at UNAM’s National School of Languages, Linguistics and Translation, and brings translation services to UNAM International magazine.

Chiang, Ted (2016). Stories of Your Life and Others. [Falta lugar]: Van Haren Publishing.

Coble Sarro, David (2015). “Límite de mi lenguaje como límite de mi mundo”. Factótum. Revista de Filosofía, 13 (https://web.archive.org/web/20180421132039id_/http://www.revistafactotum.com/revista/f_13/articulos/Factotum_13_5_David_Coble.pdf).

Deutscher, Guy (2011). El prisma del lenguaje: cómo las palabras colorean el mundo. España: Ariel.

Llorente, Analía (7 de noviembre de 2017). “¿Cómo se crea una nueva palabra?” BBC News Mundo (https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-41702909).

Sidnam, William (11 noviembre de 2022). “Why the Ancient Greeks Couldn’t See the Color Blue”. Language Lab At Medium  (https://medium.com/language-lab/why-the-ancient-greeks-couldnt-see-the-colour-blue-2f920657f6ae).

Villeneuve, Denis (2016). Arrival. Estados Unidos/Canadá: FilmNation Entertainment/21 Laps Entertainment/Lava Bear Films. 
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