How Does Language Influence How We Think?



Language shapes how we think about the world. Benjamin Whorf, a linguist in the early 1900s, called this phenomenon linguistic relativity. It is often said that the Eskimos have fifty words for snow, but it turns out that’s not true. Eskimo-Aleut languages have about as many words for snow as the English language. But the Sami languages spoken by indigenous people near the Arctic Circle in northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway have hundreds of words for snow. For example, in Lule Sami the word vahtsa means “one or two inches of new snow on top of old snow.” Bulltje means “snow that is stuck to a house” and åppås refers to “virgin snow that has not been walked on.” It’s important to keep in mind that just because the Sami have more words for snow, it does not mean that non-Sami speakers do not understand what “one or two inches of new snow on top of snow” means.

But how do broader concepts that are denoted by language affect our experience? Every language has different distinctions for color, for example, and linguists have surmised that what colors you can say are related to what colors you can see. In some languages green and blue are not different colors, but different shades of the same color. In Vietnamese, the word xanh is the color of both tree leaves and the sky.

An even more extreme example is the language Guugu Yimithirr (spoken by an indigenous group in Queensland, Australia) which does not use “left,” “right,” “behind,” or “in front of” to describe positions. Instead, Guugu Yimithirr speakers use cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) to describe the relationships between things. Where an English speaker may say, “To get to the bathroom, go to the end of the hallway and turn left. It’s the second door on the right,” a Guugu Yimithirr speaker would say, “Go to the end of the hallway and turn north. It’s the second door on the west side.” As Guy Deutscher explains in his book Through the Language Glass, the small change in vocabulary may have an immense influence in your attitude towards the world.

Author: Hot Word

For those who are proficient in English and Punjabi / Gurbani, which words come to your mind that have one version in English but multiple versions in Punjabi, and vice versa?

Also, what are your thoughts on how the language (words used) within Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji is different to English and how that could change a student's perception of Sikhi simply due to the narrow English vocabulary?


Bill Bryson has written a brilliant book about the history of language which I think you will enjoy!Language is an interesting concept. My sister used to think Panjabi in English then translate and it sounded disjointed. Then she lived in India for a while for work and that changed. So many times I get caught out thinking of the perfect phrase with no adequate translation but in the wrong language!!

When studying Gurbani, I find using English alone is just not sufficient-a lot gets lost in translation. This is whay it frequently takes me 2 hours or more to fully study each couplet and I can spend an entire day on just 1 shabad as I have to go back to simple Panjabi. Its a slow process but one that consolidates the learning for me. Studying in all English can work but if you are prepared to put the time in to learn the background and think outside the box. Some word choices are significant such as when tu is used instead of tussi by the Guru's to signify a closer loving relationship. Without understanding the construct of Panjabi, the significance of this word choice could be lost.


There are certain multiple vernacular words which have been 'condensed' into a single one in English...
Consider, versions of 'Aunt' or 'Uncle' and the multiple counterparts on both the maternal and paternal side, 'Massi', 'Chachi', 'Taayi', 'Bhua' etc. (I've never seen a single person using the likes of 'paternal Aunt', 'maternal Uncle', they probably exist only in technicality)


Findingmyway Ji and Aristotle ji, excellent examples.

Native English-speakers tend to use formal language when referring to "God" as a sign of respect. It reinforces the God On High and puny human below perception most English-speakers have of religion. I think the language probably reinforces that. English has two modes of address (as I understand it), and that is formal and casual. It doesn't really have an intimate form of address which could be used for talking about the relationship oneself has with God.

Aristotle: Perhaps the lack of terms has contributed to the breakdown of the family structure in the West? Of perhaps the language is reflecting the state of affairs - aunties and uncles don't really seem to matter in Western culture anymore, let alone which side of the family they're on.

Perhaps it's more important to identify them in cultures where you can't be seen without a head-covering in front of your husband's uncle's (on his mother's side) son, etc?

That Bryson book Findingmyway ji recommended sounds really interesting!

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