09 April 2011


Are these the same species of plants, or are they different?My guess is that, if you showed these two pictures to a range of people, speakers of Malay might classify them as the same while speakers of English are more likely to classify them as different. The reason for this is that, in Malay, they are bawang besar (lit. 'big onion') and bawang putih (lit. 'white onion'), but in English there is no link between the names onion and garlic.

This is a simple illustration of how the language we speak may influence our perception of the world. This is known as Linguistic Relativity, and it is sometimes referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. A strong form of this hypothesis is that our language determines and constrains our patterns of thought.

This strong form is not generally accepted by most linguists nowadays, as it is perfectly possible to conceive of ideas for which we have no language. However, a weaker form of the hypothesis, that our language may have some influence on the way we see the world, is more tenable. And the different ways of looking at onions and garlic may reflect this.