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?
- Interactive Interview Exercise Manual ‘What should I expect at my Oxbridge interview?’ ‘How will... Read more >
- University Admissions Tests: How Would You Reply? Here we have a few questions and answers to sample... Read more >
- English: answer like a pro We have a lot of questions year on year from... Read more >
- Music Reading List Applying for Music at Cambridge or Oxford requires a range... Read more >
- Personal Statement Solution: Brainstorm Sheet Writing your personal statement may just be the grimmest part... Read more >
- The Most Competitive Subjects At Oxbridge (And How To Choose Wisely) Oxford and Cambridge are two of the best universities in the... Read more >
- Pooling: Fast Facts You may have heard people talk about “pooling”, or maybe... Read more >
- Oxbridge Open Day Guide With open days drawing ever nearer, applicants and parents alike... Read more >
- Maths Puzzle: a game of chess We asked one of our top Maths Oxbridge tutors for... Read more >
- Personal Statement Action Plan: Section 1 of 2 The UCAS personal statement will be a key part of... Read more >
- How is the BMAT marked? The BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) is marked significantly differently from... Read more >
- Oxford and Cambridge Access Schemes Oxford and Cambridge aim to offer places to the best... Read more >
- Oxford or Cambridge? Many applicants know that they want the best, but when... Read more >
- Medicine, Maths, and Economics Puzzles We asked three of our top Medicine, Maths, and... Read more >
- Download a Physics Personal Statement “Over the past few years I have become gradually more... Read more >
- The OA School’s Magazine: Issue 1 Last year, Oxbridge Applications launched its first ever Schools’ Magazine,... Read more >
- Law Reading List Cambridge Law and Oxford Law reading lists and recommended reading. Read more >
- History Reading Lists The main challenge in the step up from school to... Read more >
- Stats report: our annual survey Every year, we survey hundreds of applicants who applied the... Read more >
- Personal Statement Action Plan: Section 2 of 2 You’ve done your reading. You’ve made your brainstorm. You’ve possibly... Read more >
- Cambridge Language Test overview If you’re applying for Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge,... Read more >
- Outside reading: the key to a good application When it comes to writing your personal statement and preparing... Read more >
- What’s the Most Important Part of Your Application? An application to Oxford or Cambridge involves various different elements,... Read more >
- Oxford college snapshots With 35 colleges and Permanent Private Halls, choosing how to... Read more >