The Japanese language has a single word that encompasses both green and blue colors, while the Russian language has separate terms for different shades of blue. So does this mean that people who speak Russian and Japanese perceive these colors differently from English speakers? And even more questionably: are we only able to form concepts of things for which we have a name?
Many people argue that language does indeed shape the way we view the world—and that cultures with different ways of naming things will see the world differently, a theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. First formulated in the 1930s, this hypothesis has had mixed popularity among linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists, although its intuitive appeal has made it widespread in the media and the public imagination.
However, according to the linguist John McWhorter, this hypothesis is just plain old wrong. In his new book The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, McWhorter explains that popular belief in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been vastly overstated: While a language’s culture may influence its language, any influence in the other direction creates at most a tiny effect, and two people can have similar or different cultures regardless of whether they speak the same language. For example, as McWhorter points out in the latest Lexicon Valley podcast, English speakers may all be able to understand each other, but we definitely don’t all think the same way!
Regardless of what you think of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the most interesting outcome of this type of research is figuring out how languages and cultures can differ from each other in ways that monolingual English speakers would never dream was possible. We’ve collected seven of the most interesting ones below: How many of them can you guess correctly?
A version of this post appeared on the OxfordWords blog.