Rethinking Language, Perception and Identity

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

 So muses a lovesick Juliet as she pines for Romeo. A rose, if called something entirely different, would still smell as sweetly as it does with the name ‘rose’. Juliet likens this to Romeo, who would still be the man she loves, had he a different name.

This now infamous quote has profound implications for the place of language in how we perceive the world. The reference is often used to imply that the names of things do not affect what they really are, that such descriptors are arbitrary. But while this notion may well have held weight in Shakespeare’s world of feuding families and star-crossed lovers, can it be realistically applied to our use of language in the everyday?

 Language is of course used to define and label the world around us, and these shared meanings enable us to transmit ideas across minds. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein viewed language as a social practice, arguing that the meaning of language is in its public use. Without shared meanings, he thought, the communication of ideas would be impossible. In Wittgenstein’s philosophy, in order to communicate with a social tribe, we must adhere to the rules of its conventionally accepted ‘language games’.

 But more than a means of communication, language can be thought of as a way of perceiving the world. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that a person’s native tongue shapes the way they think about many aspects of the world, including the way in which space and time are perceived. For instance, the Kuuk Thaayorre people in Australia, rather than using terms like left and right to describe their surroundings, use cardinal directions like east and west. Rather than viewing themselves as at the centre of things, as English speakers tend to, they tend to see themselves in relation to their landscape. As a result, speakers of such languages are found to be far better at orienting themselves than their English-speaking counterparts.

 Language choice also has the ability to guide our reasoning about events, whether consciously or not. People who speak different languages will pay attention to different things, depending on what their language usually requires of them. English speakers usually describe events in terms of individuals doing a thing, for instance ‘John broke the vase’, while Spanish speakers are less likely to mention the individual when describing the event, instead saying ‘the vase broke’. The difference in language can actually affect the way in which speakers of different languages remember events, with English speakers being more likely to remember who did something than Spanish speakers.

The belief that language shapes our cognitive world is not a new one, with holy roman emperor Charlemegne first stating centuries ago that; ‘to have a second language is to have a second soul’. However, what began as a contentious philosophical position has reached new heights of legitimacy, thanks to recent wealth of emerging data that seems to support it. If a language can be thought of as a cognitive universe then such a prospect should excite us too. For there are over 7000 different languages in the world today, each with the potential to afford us a new way of perceiving.

This article was written by Alice McGowan