The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Without a linguistic counterpart to a new-found action or object, we find ourselves searching for meaning in terms of categorization, semantics, and symbolic associations. We are the words we have at our disposal and when we don’t have the word (or words) we languish. Language determinism is the idea that language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought. The words we possess determine the things that we can know. If we have an experience, we are confined not just in our communication of it, but also in our knowledge of it, by the words we possess.
Though the work of Sapir and Whorf (no, not the Star Trek guy with the deformed forehead, but the linguist) are a perennial point of debate in sociolinguistic circles, their work still matters. In a nutshell, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that individuals experience the world based on the lexical items and grammatical structures they habitually use. For example, speakers of different languages may see different numbers of bands in a rainbow. Since rainbows are actually a continuum of color, there are no empirical stripes or bands, and yet people see as many bands as their language possesses primary color words. For those engaged in design or marketing, this has significant implications when launching brands in a global market.
The objective world is entirely removed by the presence of language. It is perceived, but human life is determined by having language and by the language’s own internal demands. Like Semiotics, which argues that a single grammar exists prior to all human activity, the structures, hierarchies, and hidden associations of our individual human languages determine the conclusions that we reach in our logic, the aspirations of our lived lives, and all our emotional content. In other words, we are our language and while there may be exceptions to the rule (though I’ve yet to see one) the fact remains that who we are and how we see the world is bound up in the act of communication, linguistic exchanges in particular.
So what does it mean to marketers and the like? It simply means that a clever turn of phrase isn’t necessarily the best option when talking to the people we’re trying to sell things to. The underlying symbolic and structural elements of language need to be understood in a range of contexts and the webs of meaning need to be explored. Far too often, we write copy and brand descriptions that simply don’t make sense or are so removed from the context of the people using the product, engaging in the retail space, etc. as to become detrimental to our goals in marketing the brand. Knowing what someone said our how they feel isn’t enough. We need to understand how they create and interpret their world, then create modes of communication that go beyond a tagline or list of attributes. We need to understand the complexity of the human condition and how language shapes behavior, beliefs and action.