Linguistic Relativity: How our words change our reality


Two months ago I saw the film Arrival, a science fiction film that combines aliens, imminent war, the military, scientists, and shifting time. But really what the film was about was language. Specifically how the channels of communication we have and the language we use within those channels changes the way we perceive our own reality, and that if we could change those channels, expand the language we have at our disposal, we can see reality in a new way.

This idea of using a change in our communication vehicles to provide new insight into our reality may be one of the most inspiring things I can think of, and if my work can provide something close to that I will be the most content I have ever been, so I began to look into the theories that informed the story behind Arrival. This is where I found the term linguistic relativity, and the history behind it.


Linguistic Relativity Theory, otherwise known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, was introduced in the early 20th Century by a collection of anthropologists and linguists, who began to see that the structure of a language a speaker uses changes the way the view the world and their cognition. Whether it is the perception of color based off of the words you have to describe them, how gender is used in conversation, or how a language treats the concept of time, linguistic relativity theory asserts that the nuances in our language change our cognition and perception of reality. This leads to many questions:

Can I augment my language to see reality in a different light?

Do other languages offer a more impactful opportunity to understand yourself and the world around you?

And how can technology provide a look into those other linguistic realities? 


This notion is interesting and exciting for a number of reasons, but stands out to me because it offers such a glimpse into what builds the rest of you. There are many aspects of our unconscious that seem intangible and hard to point to, but language is a highly tangible tool with rules, structures, and systems. The idea that such a tangible structure has an affect on the rest of us means there may be an opportunity to bend the structure, and in turn bend the rest of us.

Skylar JessenComment