Way back in 1958, in the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction, Jack Vance wrote a book called The Languages of Pao, in which he postulated that language drastically affects human thought patterns and, thus, the entire structure of a culture or civilization. A more scholarly statement of this is the linguistic relativity principle, otherwise known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, of which there are two versions. One states that language limits and determines cognitive categories. A weaker version merely suggests that language influences thought and certain non-linguistic behaviours. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was thought to be discredited by color-related experiments in the 1960s, because researchers found that language differentials did not seem to affect color perception or usage.
Recent studies of human brain patterns and linguistic development, reported in the June 1st edition of New Scientist, strongly suggest that, first, there is not, as previously thought, a genetically-determined “universal” human instinct/hard-wired pattern for language that is common to all human beings, but that languages are in fact learned and used in often totally different ways by those speaking different tongues. Thus, as speculated by Vance, languages do in fact shape the way we not only think, but the very way in which we see the world. And, as occasionally happens, but not so much as we science fiction writers would like to think or claim, one of us has actually anticipated a fundamental discovery, and one that has profound implications for human civilization, implications that I don’t think most people have fully considered.
If this research is accurate, then, for example, intractible cultural differences may well lie in the linguistic patterns of a culture. A language that offers many ways in which to accurately express the same concept or thought would likely promote more openness of thought than a language in which there is literally only one correct way in which that thought can be expressed. A language/culture that allows rapid linguistic innovation may promote change and development… but it might well have the downside of undermining standards, because standards, as represented by language, are not seen as fixed or immutable. We already know that words expressing concepts, such as “freedom” or “equality,” do not “translate” into the exact same meanings in different cultures, and this research offers insights into why the differences go beyond mere semantics.
These possibilities have certainly been considered in human history, if only instinctively or subconsciously. For centuries, the Roman Catholic church resisted the translation of the Bible into any other language, insisting it be read and taught only in Latin. Since 1635, with a few years in abeyance during the French Revolution, L’Academie Francaise has policed usage and linguistic development in France, attempting to restrict or eliminate the use of Frenchified Anglicisms. And languages do affect other aspects of human behavior. Recent studies have shown that speakers of tonally-inflected languages have far, far, higher rates of perfect pitch than do speakers of languages that are not tonally inflected. Not entirely coincidentally, it seems to me, speakers of such languages also appear to have more successful classical musicians.
A more disturbing aspect of the research is the possibility that linguistic differences may well create cultural “understanding” divides that are difficult, if not impossible, to bridge, simply because the languages create antithetical patterns of thought, so that a speaker of one language cannot literally comprehend emotionally the concepts and values behind the words of a speaker of another language. The initial research suggests that the magnitude of variances in languistic learning patterns ranges from very slight to quite significant… and it will be interesting to see if such differences can ever be quantified. But it does appear that speaking another language goes far beyond the words.
And a science fiction writer pointed out the cultural implications and ramifications for societies first.