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Language as a Template for the Conceptualization of Reality

Since language is the vehicle of thought, it is reasonable to assume that language also (indirectly) influences perception and conceptualization. This assumption has been a staple of linguistics at least since the work of the pioneering linguists/anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, entered the mainstream under what came to be called “the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.” More recently, it has come under the compass of what is termed “the principle of linguistic relativity,” which holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world or otherwise influences their cognitive processes.

Those who attempt to debunk this principle misunderstand its thrust, which is provably valid and leads to irrefragable conclusions. Take the simple case of the way English and Russian speakers designate someone whose hearing is impaired. In English one calls such a person ‘hard of hearing’. In Russian the equivalent is tugoúxij (тугоухий), a compound adjective consisting of two roots––tug– ‘tight’ and ux– ‘ear’ (-o– is a connecting vowel). Leaving aside the second of the two lexical components, viz. English hearing and Russian úxo (ухо) ‘ear’, the difference between the conceptualization of a hearing-impaired person in the two languages comes down to the one between E ‘hard’ and R ‘tight’. An English speaker learns to conceive of the impairment in terms of the contrast HARD :: EASY, whereas a Russian speaker comes to regard the same condition in terms of the contrast TIGHT :: LOOSE. This subtle difference between the two languages betrays not only a different disposition of qualities but a different way of perceiving/conceiving reality. QED.


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