[ Content | View menu ]

NPR on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Mark Mzyk | April 12, 2009

A while back I wrote about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  In a serendipitous coincidence, NPR ran a story recently that directly relates to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong.  While the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis isn’t mentioned, it clearly is involved.

The story touches on languages and how gender in languages affects thinking.  It is highlighted that Spanish speakers and Germany speakers pick different adjectives to describe a bridge, based on the fact that in one language a bridge is male, in the other, female.

The story goes on to talk about how scientists set up an experiment to determine if it was language that the differences could be attributed to.  They determined it is language and that you can shift people’s thinking by teaching them a language that uses different gender constructs.

The story then goes on to talk about Shakespeare’s famous line: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Here’s the actual, full quote:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
Act II, Scene II. Romeo and Juliet

It’s a very interesting story and well worth the seven minutes it takes to listen to.

As an added bonus, Knowing and Doing just posted a post titled Language Driven Programming, which tackles many of the same themes and applies them to programming languages.

Filed in: Languages,Programming.


  1. Comment by Chris Ess:

    I had read about the bit about bridges before but I don’t remember where now. I think that was about the time of the previous post/conversation.

    I have a few questions after reading the post on Knowing and Doing. Since there doesn’t seem to be a comments interface there, I’ll do it here. Mr. Wallingford mentions uncomfortable constructs he found himself writing as a result of the language features of Smalltalk and Scheme. My questions are: If a language’s features and constructs suggest doing things in a way you would not have initially have considered, is this always wrong? Or does this path lead to morsels of enlightenment, even if only occasionally?

    April 13, 2009 @ 10:37
  2. Comment by Mark:

    While I can’t speak for Mr. Wallingford, I can provide the answers I would give.

    Is it always wrong if a language suggests doing things in a way not initially considered? I would say no. It could be either better, worse, or no change. Just because a certain way might be suggested doesn’t say anything about the value it might have. It’s value might even come down to a matter of opinion. However, at the least, it’s expanding the programmer’s mind to new ways of thinking, and I think that is of positive value.

    I think I just answered question two: does this path lead to morsels of enlightenment, even if only occasionally? My answer is yes. I think gaining these morsels of enlightenment is also why it is suggested that programmers learn a new language every year. It forces one’s worldview to expand and that opens new ways of thinking, giving programmers new options in solving problems.

    April 13, 2009 @ 13:08