Monday, November 21, 2016

Language Shapes Reality

Vox |  The film’s premise hinges on the idea, shared by many linguists and philosophers of language, that we do not all experience the same reality. The pieces of it are the same — we live on the same planet, breathe the same air — but our perceptions of those pieces shift and change based on the words and grammar we use to describe them to ourselves and each other.

For instance, there is substantial evidence that a person doesn’t really see (or perhaps "perceive") a color until their vocabulary contains a word, attached to meaning, that distinguishes it from other colors. All yellows are not alike, but without the need to distinguish between yellows and the linguistic tools to do so, people just see yellow. A color specialist at a paint manufacturer, however, can distinguish between virtually hundreds of colors of white. (Go check out the paint chip aisle at Home Depot if you’re skeptical.)

Or consider the phenomenon of words in other languages that describe universal feelings, but can only be articulated precisely in some culture. We might intuitively "feel" the emotion, but without the word to describe it we’re inclined to lump the emotion in with another under the same heading. Once we develop the linguistic term for it, though, we can describe it and feel it as distinct from other shades of adjacent emotions.