Relative Linguistics: Our Language as a Cultural Lens

What happens when people try to imagine new ways of being? This is something Butler’s fiction asks us when we are reading, as we try to put ourselves in the world of her characters. She also poses this to her characters – for instance, Doro not fully being able to imagine the effects of the pattern until he experiences it himself. In class we spoke about imagining the pattern, and how it was outside of what we could imagine because we ourselves had never experienced it, like Doro. I wanted to take a look at the sociology behind the language aspect of this inability, namely, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

This hypothesis states that the “structure of a language affects the perceptions of reality of its speakers and thus influences their thought patterns and worldviews” (definition from This is also known as linguistic relativism, and essential says that everything we see and think is affected by the language we see/think those things in.

As both a writer and an active reader, being aware that what I am reading is being interpreted through my own cultural language lens is just as important as keeping in mind that my writing is inherently influenced by my native language. Our ability to imagine new ways of being, as we are obliged to do when reading Butler’s work, is therefore just as affected.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that there are three things to consider and answer in a discussion of linguistic relativism:

  1. Which aspectsof language influence which aspects of thought in some systematic way?
  2. What formdoes that influence take?
  3. How strong is that influence?

Using this template we can examine the restraints on our own imagination and thought.  The example used in the Encyclopedia page is color: different cultures classify the color spectrum in different ways, so what we may see as “red” could be in a slightly different spot on the spectrum for someone from a different culture.  This is something that may not make a huge difference to us while we’re reading, but represents the larger possibilities of what we are misinterpreting, or not able to imagine due to each of our own native languages.

Admittedly, I don’t have the sociological knowledge or background to go into analyzing an aspect specifically or working my way through the three questions posed, but it does raise some interesting points. The things that keep us from imagining other ways of being could be different from someone from a different culture. When we try to imagine other ways of being, we not only have to work through the lenses of our experience and upbringing, we have to work through the cultural lens of language, as well.

The Encyclopedia page I referenced multiple times can be found here and is a great read if you’re interested in learning more about the theory and its relative merits, or just have twenty minutes to kill.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *