Language Philosophy & Religion

Sapir-Whorf and the nature of experience

The novel 1984 by George Orwell is a classic all its own. Sure there’s WE, Brave New World and countless other dystopian novels from the early to mid 20th century[1]; yet none of these novels are quite so prescient or relevant decades after their release. While literary critics and poor graduate students will certainly continue to analyze and critique these novels–and the movement as a whole–for decades or centuries to come, there is a particular facet I wish to highlight tonight.

A central thread of the 1984 novel is the government’s use of doublethink to reorient the ideas, thoughts and wills of those under the government’s control. While anyone who’s read the novel already knowns, the canon definition of doublethink is:

to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.

–1984 George Orwell p. 33

Doublethink is a tool of control, just like any other, used by the government to control the people by manipulating their ability to think independently or critically about the state. By eliminating negative words or “dangerous” words, an individual would be literally incapable of negative thought towards the government, and even change the way they think about the past. What most reader’s of 1984 don’t realize is that this effect of language on thought is actually a whole field of linguistic/philosophical research. By the middle of the 20th century, a new school of linguistics had emerged that promoted ‘linguistic relativism’ which taught that cognition is an act that performs only as a function of the grammar and the lexicography available.

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 22.19.37To give a popular example, consider the case of naming colors[2]. Consider the difference between sky blue and pink. Each half of ,this set has the same range of values (+128 in the red channel), but clearly there is a lot more visual difference within the bottom set than the top set.[3] Just as hearing a foreign language makes for a dynamic experience (we aren’t used to hearing the sounds), so too is seeing unusual colors.

What this all boils down to is the simple fact that it is hard to think about those things that we cannot name. Just as emotions can be a challenge to express, colors and other un-named entities can be difficult to think about. Perhaps this principle plays a part in all of our lives, and perhaps it’s a large part than any of us would care to admit to.

Welcome to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Now, how many lights do you see?


  1. See this exhaustive(?) list on Wikipedia for a full list.
  2. This post does a good job describing some of these aspects.
  3. Some of this effect is from the RGB color gamut, but a lot of it is due to perception.
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