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Linguistic relativity: A modern day puzzle

Man’s mind is an enigma, and to this day, we can’t fully comprehend what it’s truly capable of. We only understand a fraction of how it works, and so much of what it can do is still left in the dark. Such was the case when American linguist Edward Sapir hypothesized in 1929 that the structure of a language could determine how the speaker of said language perceived the world around him. This phenomenon has come to be known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a hypothesis continuously puzzled over to this day.

The Philippines is a country where multiple languages are prevalent. English and Tagalog are two of the most common languages, and many people who speak one of these languages speak the other as well. However, there’s something uncanny about switching between the two languages, as if speakers become different people when speaking a different tongue.

“It’s like I’m more serious when I use English,” says Pam Chuateco (I, BS IE) when asked if she felt a difference when speaking in Tagalog and English. “When I speak in Tagalog, the conversation’s more fun and lighthearted.”

However, it’s not just in the way she speaks that she feels a difference, but in the way she thinks as well. Pam not only speaks in English and Tagalog, but in Chinese as well, and she says that the different ways she uses each language affects her perception of the world around her. “When speaking with my family, I use Tagalog mostly, sometimes Chinese,” Pam explains. “But when I’m in the classroom, I think in a mix of English and Tagalog because it’s more comfortable, and because of all the terms—some things can’t be translated.”

“It’s hard to do things like calculus in Tagalog or Chinese,” she adds.

The Philippines is also home to dozens of indigenous dialects, each of which is said to have their own unique tone and personality. It’s an aspect of the language borne about by years of evolution and tradition compounded on one another. As someone whose speech alternates between English, Filipino, and one of these dialects, Royce Malalis (II, MEM-MRE) tends to speak in Bisaya when he wants to convey heavier emotions. “Translating words from Bisaya to Tagalog or English limits the intensity of whatever we want to say,” he explains, adding that his thoughts primarily come to him in Bisaya.


004 Sapir-Whorf Hypothsesis - Kathy Yuvienco


In his opinion, however, Royce claims to not believe in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’ existence, saying his personality remains the same regardless of the language he chooses to communicate with. “I think and feel the same no matter what I use,” he explains. “I think it’s more of other people interpreting me differently.” He attributes this to how different languages put different kinds of stress on words, and how these can take on different tones depending on what you’re used to.

It sounds crazy, but it’s something relatable to most people who speak more than one language. Why is this the case? The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that a reason for this is because the culture from which a language comes from is unique, and thus makes the values, beliefs and norms behind it come from varying origins as well. The experiences that mold the languages lead to a difference in the way people who use them think.

“The way the Chinese make up their words is different from the way English was made, or Filipino. The thought process in making these words, phrases, and sentences is a part of the language, and remains intact in those who speak them,” says Tommy Chen, a first-year Management Engineering student in Ateneo de Manila University who came from Taiwan.

“The root of language is in history,” says Joanne Tung (I, BS IE), a speaker of three languages. “How these people lived, it affects how these languages are made. That’s why we have words like kilig and gigil in the Filipino language while other languages don’t have a direct translation; it’s not as normal to talk about such things in other countries.”

Another example of how language is influenced by their origin and history is in the Chinese language. The style in which the Chinese language is constructed is very distinct, and sets itself apart from most languages around the world. “For example, many Chinese words are based off how what’s being talked about looks visually,” Tommy said, giving an example. “The droplets of water and the flickers of a flame are represented in every character. And aspects of certain characters can be molded together to form new words.”

Why the use of a certain language influences how we think can also be attributed to how these languages construct patterns in words and sentences, as these may also distinctly vary. “The way the subjects and predicates interact in Chinese versus how they interact in English are very different,” Tommy says. “In English, the passive voice is most often used when communicating, but in Chinese, it’s the active voice that takes on a greater role in the sentence.”

In light of these things, an important question to ask is how big of a factor is this phenomenon in our daily lives. Students don’t seem to think it’s a thing to cause much hindrance in their everyday lives.

“It’s not a problem,” says Joanne. “It’s just kind of weird when you realize it and when your mind sort of switches.”

“You don’t even realize that it happens sometimes,” says Tommy. “It’s only when you really take time to sit and think about it that you realize like, ‘oh wow, this is crazy.’”

While there has yet to be concrete evidence towards proving that the language a person speaks affects how they think and perceive, the majority of the people interviewed concur to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’ claim. Regardless of whether the phenomenon is real, the mere fact that it was thought up only serves to show the complexity of human communication, and how similar words can mean entirely different things and portray whole spectrums of emotions.

By Westin Perez

By Nadine Macalalad

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