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The idea of there being certain words that simply don’t exist in other languages, and correspondingly, concepts that simply cannot be understood, is a popular one. One common expression of this belief is the claim that the Inuit have many different words for ‘snow’, the implication being that because their culture is so connected to their sub-zero surroundings, they have multiple discrete concepts for something that we can only conceive in very broad terms. This has been disproved, however. The languages spoken by arctic peoples such as the Inuit or the Aleut are highly synthetic, meaning that they have on average a high morphene-to-word ratio. In other words, synthetic languages combine multiple concepts or pieces of information into one word. This is hardly unusual; most Indo-European languages are synthetic, although English and a few others are more analytical. Because of this, more than one concept can be contained within a word unit- for example, ‘fresh snow’ or ‘heavy snow’.

It seems as though we are fascinated by the idea of different cultures possessing exclusive concepts that we cannot access. This is linked to a specific school of thought. Linguistic relativism suggests that the language you speak has an impact on your cognition and worldview; this is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, after Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Although very frequently cited, it is just as frequently criticised and disputed. More broadly, linguistic relativism fits into an ideological progression from enlightenment thought to romantic thought and so on to the present day, with the romantics rejecting the enlightenment notion that language was dependent on, and secondary to, rational thought which reflected reality. Fast forward to 1942, we can see a dramatic reversal in Whorf’s claim that “thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is thrown by the study of language”.

It must be said that one feature of Whorf’s thought that is often misconstrued by critics is the fact that he was primarily interested in the effect of language on habitual thought. Hence the question is not “does my language possess the capacity to express this concept?” but rather, “does my language lead me to habitually think along the lines of this concept and behave accordingly?” Notably, his analogy of the ‘empty’ gasoline drum was intended to demonstrate that our typical use of the word ‘empty’ influences our behaviour and our underlying assumptions (even when the ‘empty’ drum contains flammable vapour); critics, however, often took him to mean that the English language is simply not capable of distinguishing between a drum filled with air and one filled with dangerous vapour. Perhaps, then, so-called “untranslatable” words should not be judged by whether the concept can physically be conveyed in another language, but rather whether its role in its native language has a discernible effect on habitual thought.

Applicants for Linguistics should be familiar with the concept of linguistic relativism and may like to read the key texts. What side of the argument are you on? Is thought really shaped by language?

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