With the election of Donald Trump in November came a torrent of think pieces, op-eds, podcasts, Facebook posts, and tweets. Everyone had something to say and someone to blame. It was Hillary’s fault, it was the Left’s fault, it was Putin’s fault, it was the media’s fault. In trying to understand the election, I was left feeling a bit lost.
How could this happen? How could the American people elect someone like Trump? His policies make no sense, he bragged about sexual assault, he has no political experience. Every day was a new scandal, and yet – he is now the President Elect. I still struggle to understand, but I think some of the most interesting Trump pieces I saw over the past year both came from Evan Puschak (aka the Nerdwriter) and they both analyzed the way Trump uses language.
Word choice matters. Language is powerful.
This isn’t a new idea – George Orwell knew it when he wrote Politics and the English Language – but Puschak’s videos got me thinking: what does science have to say about the influence of language on thought?
So I did a bit of digging and this is what I came up with.
There was a popular theory in the 1940s called Whorfianism (proposed by Benjamin Lee Whorf) that the vocabulary available to people shaped their thoughts. This was supported by ‘facts’ like the oft-quoted (but false) statement that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow.
The strong form of Whorfianism, that you can only think about things that you have words for, has been refuted. You can think about individual colours, smells, and feelings without having specific words for them. If it were true that thoughts had to have words, we would have a hard time coming up with new words (like glam-ma and YouTuber, two of December 2016’s Oxford English Dictionary additions).
Because of the total academic discrediting of Whorfianism, it became difficult to get funding to do any research linking languages with cognitive processes. In the last couple of decades, however, a weaker form of Whorfianism has arisen and gained some traction.
While language doesn’t determine thinking, it seems to be able to influence it. I’ll leave some links to studies and articles with plenty of examples below, but my favourite is an Australian aboriginal language called Guugu Yimithirr.
In this language, directions like right and left are always replaced by cardinal directions (North/East/South/West), even on small scales. Facing north, a Guugu Yimithirr-speaking woman might lift her eastern hand to pick up an object north of her, before turning to the southwest to switch it to her southeast hand. People who grow up speaking this language must always and instantly be aware of the cardinal directions. The language has created a training regimen that results in an almost supernatural ability to determine direction.
So while language doesn’t necessarily limit thought, it (along with culture and a dozen other factors) does shape it.
With this weaker form of Whorfianism in mind, I wonder whether the emotive language that Trump has been using to such great effect might alter political discourse. If everyone starts playing his game, will language slowly shift be more emotional? Will we become more tuned to the emotional context of language as a result?
Probably not, but it’s interesting to think about.
And here are those links I promised:
American Linguistic Society – Does the language I speak influence the way I think?
Scientific American – Does language shape the way we think?
New York Times – Does your language shape the way you think?
Lera Boraditsky – How the languages we speak shape the ways we think
Steven Pinker – What our language habits reveal
Lead image by Gary Skidmore