Sapir-Whorf and Programming Polyglots, pt 1

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Take up the study of linguistics and it will not be long before you run into the controversy of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which basically argues that the language you know influences how you think about the world. The controversy lies in how to define “influence.” The “strong version” of the hypothesis claims your thoughts are constrained by the language in which you think; your language determines how you see the world in a fundamental, unchangeable way. Now this may sound a bit odd to you, and that’s because it’s wrong (the fact that we can translate things from one language to another is a pretty solid argument against it). The strong version is upheld by essentially no one. The “weak version,” though, is more likely: it says you are capable of perceiving and expressing any concept no matter your language, but some things will require more effort than others.

For example, some languages group green and blue into the same basic color category (“grue”).* Much like we can point to a rainbow and call out “indigo” and “violet” but then say, “yeah, but they’re really both just purple,” speakers of these languages might look at a leaf floating in the water and say “yeah, both of those objects are grue.” They still do physically perceive the difference between the leaf and the water, but they might need deliberate training and practice in order to notice that difference. Or consider Japanese, where there are different counting words depending on the type of thing being counted: you count roads like you count pencils but not like you count cars. So in some sense, a Japanese-thinking brain groups objects differently than an English-thinking brain. (If this is the first time you’ve encountered these ideas, don’t be surprised if you’re feeling a bit baffled or even irritated right now. Coming to grips with truly foreign concepts can kind of give you a headache. Think this is fascinating and want a bigger challenge? Check out ergative-accusative syntax.)

Your language influences not just your perception but your expression of reality. Whether the Inuit have 50 words for snow may or may not be true, but that’s the idea.

All this to say–when you learn a second language, it has real potential to shift your paradigms, shake up your mental snowglobe, alter the ways you think about categories and structures and connections. It breaks your brain. You notice things you never noticed before.

Now, what does all this have to do with programming? I’ll tell you in part 2.

* What’s black and white and red all over? The entire world if you speak Tiv, which only has three basic color terms! Ha ha ha… I’ll show myself out.