The Language in Arrival

One of my favorite movies in recent years is the sci-fi movie Arrival. The film’s storyline revolves around attempts by a group of scientists and researchers to decipher the language of a strange alien race that has arrived on Earth. The alien language has no concept of linear time, and as the main character (played by Amy Adams) begins to understand it, her perception of time starts to change, as well.

It’s an interesting concept for a sci-fi movie but it might be closer to reality than you think. There’s an existing theory — the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — that dictates that your language can affect, to some degree, how you interpret reality. This may sound far-fetched, but a recent study seems to back it up (emphasis mine).

The idea that the language that you speak influences how you think about and experience the world (the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has a long and storied history. A lot of research into the issue has focused on colour perception, and evidence has accumulated that people whose native languages have different colour categories don’t see the world in quite the same way.

Now in a new paper, published in Psychological Science, Martin Maier and Rasha Abdel Rahman at the Humboldt University of Berlin report that by affecting visual processing at an early stage, such linguistic differences can even determine whether someone will see a coloured shape — or they won’t. ​“Our native language is thus one of the forces that determine what we consciously perceive,” they write.

[…]

Earlier work already showed that having a category term for something — whether it’s an object or a colour — speeds up a person’s ability to identify that item among a host of others. Russian-speakers are faster at discriminating between light and dark blue colour patches than English-speakers, for example. Maier and Abdel-Rahman wanted to go further and see whether linguistic colour categories would influence the likelihood of speakers of different languages becoming conscious of something at all.

[…]

Maier and Abdel-Rahman found that, as they’d expected, the Greek-speakers were more likely to see a triangle when it was light against dark blue (or vice versa) than when it was light green against dark green (or vice versa). This is consistent with the idea that having fundamental linguistic categories for the two types of blue made it more likely that these triangles made it into the participants’ conscious perception.

This is fascinating stuff, and though I don’t want to take it too far — in another article, a linguist cautions against the notion that learning a new language will suddenly and completely alter your brain — the ramifications are interesting to think about. If nothing else, it should maybe give us a little epistemic humility; as rational and objective as we like to think we are, there may very well be aspects of the world that we are incapable of comprehending simply because our language doesn’t possess the words or concepts to describe them.

This brings to mind something that Rod Dreher wrote several years ago about language and seeing the world, and how our culture (of which language is a part) can shape how we see (or don’t see) reality. Dreher’s article focuses on the experiences of a linguist named Dan Everett, specifically a strange experience he had while working as a missionary to an Amazon tribe called the Pirahã.

Everett begins his book with a startling anecdote. One morning, he and his family were awakened in their riverbank hut by the sound of the tribe rushing down to the river to see something amazing: a theophany. The excited Piraha were pointing to a beach on the opposite side of the river, where they saw ​“Xigagai, the spirit” appearing, and threatening the men with death if they went into the jungle. Everett writes:
Even I could tell that there was nothing on that white, sandy beach no more than one hundred yards away. And yet as certain as I was about this, the Pirahas were equally certain that there was something there. Maybe there had been something there that I missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagai, was still there.
His young daughter came out to have a look, and like her father, saw nothing. Everett continues:
What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahas culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it. As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another’s views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahas, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.

Dreher goes on to write about how the Pirahã culture understand truth. Essentially, they won’t believe anything they hear unless the person telling them has first-hand experience of the event or phenomena being described. As you might imagine, this made it extremely difficult for Everett as a missionary to convince them of the existence of Jesus since he’d never actually met Jesus in person. The Pirahã’s insistence on firsthand experience as authoritative effectively cuts them off from having any sense of history beyond the memories of those currently alive.

It’s easy to read about something like the Pirahã tribe and dismiss it as primitive nonsense — nonsense that those of us living in the enlightened first world would surely never fall subject to. And yet, as the aforementioned study suggests, we all have epistemic blind spots of which we are completely unaware, and that are the result of cultural forces over which we have no control.