Do people who speak different languages live in different worlds?
Would it be reasonable to claim that a person who speaks language A lives in another world than does one who speaks language B, merely because their languages are not the same? Obviously, every man lives in his own world since we all perceive the world differently (and the world must here be considered to be what we perceive it to be). There is a number of factors that affect our perception of the world, most notably our senses, our memories and the culture to which be belong. Is it perhaps also so that the language we happen to speak is also such a factor (apart from the role it plays in culture)?
Now, we perceive the world through our senses, and process the acquired images inside the brain together with our memories and beliefs, to create impressions that we (often, but not always) interpret and respond to. Where in this model would language fit in, if it also plays a part in this procedure, as suggested? Either in the processing of input (acting as a filter to what we can observe), or in the interpretation of it (being a filter to what we can possibly know, and therefore also to what we can observe). Both would qualify as factors in the production of our image of the world. So if language is an essential part of our understanding, it most certainly makes us live in different worlds.
Many people have argued that this is the case, most notably the two American linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, fathers of the Sapir/Whorf-hypothesis. Basically, their hypothesis is that people who speak different languages must be considered to live in different worlds, since our understanding of the world is indeed dependant on language. Their main arguments are related to how we encode information in the brain. Language, Whorf says, is the universal set of knowledge into which we must first translate what we observe before we can interpret and understand it. In other words, it is the words themselves together with their definitions, that carry the concepts of knowledge. I can not know neither what the word "car" means nor what it refers to, if I have not been previously taught what it is, they argue. And there is no way to get around the problem by explaining what is meant by the word "car", since you would then end up knowing what "car" means.
Sceptics, argue that the basic concepts of knowledge are not part of language, but that language is a scheme for naming these concepts. That knowledge is not linguistically dependant, rather conceptually dependant. Commonly used examples are words like "if" and "not", which are terribly hard to explain without using those very words themselves. Therefore, some say, we have a basic set of concepts which we expand to suit the world, and first later give words for when we have a need to communicate. Our view upon the world has nothing to do with our language.
Basically, it all falls back on what was first of language and conceptual, ’intelligent’ thinking, since we undoubtedly can observe a quite strong relation between them. Try to explain a concept without using words, or try to find a word that has no concept (not counting interjections). Is it the concepts that define our words, or is it the other way around? Before man had a language, was he able to think in abstract concepts? This is a tough question, which has attracted many philosopers.
It has been hard for Whorf and company to prove their standpoint scientifically. Indeed, at first glance, it does seem a bit far-fetched to claim that we should not be able to understand something just because we do not know the right words to name it. Is it not more likely that what we lack is a concept, since there is often a way of communicating whatever was to be communicated in such a manner that we do understand it without knowing the word? However, as we break up complex concepts into several smaller ones, and also do the same with the words describing these concepts (dividing into morphemes), we will find ourselves ending up with concepts that are nearly unseparable from their words, or else they will lose their meanings. So Whorf with followers certainly do have a point in what they argue.
So, do people who speak different languages live in different worlds? There is no doubt that language is an important part of a world, since it enables much of the interaction between humans. Culture, religion and science depends on language. Therefore it is definitely a necessary premise to differentiate worlds. But could language by itself draw the line between two worlds? Is it a sufficient premise? Hardly, as it should often be possible to perceive the world without using language, but by a set of basic concepts that all humans have. So, in the strictest possible manner, "No, they do not live in different worlds, just because of their disparate languages". However, it is not unlikely that language, together with numerous other human ventures, such as culture and social heritage, is a factor that matters when we face the world.
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