When studying German, I started to think on language and its relation to reality. The story I came up with is like this:

As we know we are born with no language. The baby starts trying things. I suppose that the body reacts avoiding things which produce physical suffering as fire from the beginning. While growing up, the history acts on him. Parents teach the baby what to do and what not to do, learn languages and so on. In this sense, language is quite important in our lives: it gives shape to reality. So, language shapes reality, that is the idea. If this is true, experience shapes us but also language shapes experience.

Two different people will pay attention to different things in reality, and the awareness is different. So experience can be different not only because of our bodies but of our culture. Of course this is not restricted to people talking the different languages. Two different people will always have slightly different experiences (and I think that also reality is different for them).


Is this idea about language correct? Do you have anything valuable to say for helping to understand the problem?

Any bibliography — like an essay — will be greatly welcome.

  • 1
    You raise a number of points in your question. To respond to just one, not everybody believes we are born without a language. Jerry Fodor, for instance, argues that language is innate. Of course, we’re not born speaking English or German. Still, he thinks that a certain amount of ‘linguistic structure’ is hard-wired into us. See e.g. his ‘The Language of Thought’ and ‘LOT2’.
    – MarkOxford
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 20:57
  • 1
    read "The Geography of Thought" by RIchard Nisbett Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 7:20

2 Answers 2


To be frank, the idea that language can (at the very least) shape our perception of reality is hardly new; it has been around in linguistics for some time and is the basis of many science fiction movies. To be fair here, language CANNOT shape our universe, and the movie Arrival (based on a short story) highlights an effect of language that isn't possible, but at a far more subtle level, this kind of change in perception IS possible as we learn new languages, and how they're used by the native speakers.

George Orwell (in his novel 1984) looks at the possibility of reducing language in order to reduce the scope of thought. The whole point of Newspeak was to limit the civilian population from even being able to conceive of revolution. This is not thought by serious scholars to be possible. You can't unring a bell like that and if the concept exists, it can be conceived again and a new word developed to take the place of the old one which has been left behind.

What is far more likely is that learning new languages (and modifying our existing ones) adds to the body of concepts and knowledge we can perceive. This is in fact how language has been working for us since the dawn of humans; the idea is conceived, a word gets created, others perceive that idea by virtue of now having to understand the word. Sure, some words also fall out of general usage because they're no longer relevant as concepts for us. BUT, generally speaking, you can alter the perception and readiness to accept certain ideas by expanding the language of the person you are educating in that concept.

In short, language forms a categorisation model for our minds. Everything we know we can articulate into language in some form, and while that shapes our perception and interpretation of observation, it doesn't shape the observation itself. So; language can't change our reality, but it can certainly shape our perception of it.

  • I am saying that language but also culture shape our experience because it shapes our attention, which is part of consciousness. It seems a fact to me and not even near science fiction. Of course I can be totally wrong. It seems to me that we perceive trees, water, and so on, but we could have a language where those things are one, and our experience would be different.
    – user29573
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:31
  • No, I actually agree with you. The science fiction component is merely to demonstrate just to what extremes this model has been taken in the past. Your point about language to differentiate different trees is a useful one insofar as our perception is limited (at least initially) by the precision, or lack thereof, of the words in our language.
    – Tim B II
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:34
  • I understand. So our experience is a bit shaped by culture..
    – user29573
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:37
  • Yes. Absolutely. The first link I put in my answer has an example of Australian Aboriginies who didn't have a concept of left or right. They didn't use it in their sense of direction or in their perception of their environment. This is a simple example, but there are many more out there.
    – Tim B II
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:40
  • Good. I wil see you answer more carefully.
    – user29573
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:47

As briefly cited about halfway-down the "hardly new" link posted by @TimBII, it's the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, e.g., https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/language-and-thought (google "Sapir-Whorf" for many other references), that directly investigates exactly what you're suggesting.


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