Looking for a theory about language and perception
August 11, 2018 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I vaguely remember reading a theory about language, storytelling, and writing fundamentally changing the way humans perceive the world, but I have no idea if this is a known and respected theory or just some thing I read on a random blog. Are there any well-known theories like this?

This is a vague recollection but it went something like: the ability to share stories through language fundamentally altered the subjective experience of being a human. That is, a person who has lived their whole life speaking with others would not even experienced reality the same way that a pre-language human would. There may also have been something in there about how writing would dramatically accelerate this process of changing how we perceive reality, but I'm not sure.

That's about all I remember, is there anything out there like this?
posted by Tehhund to Religion & Philosophy (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
linguistic relativity is a term that might get you some traction. This is very much an idea in linguistic circles, but has lots of popular references that may not be scientifically grounded. The movie Arrival deals with this topic as a central theme. I’m fairly certain there’s a radiolab episode about this, but can’t dredge it up right now, but they go over the harder-science aspects of it.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:36 AM on August 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

IIRC the movie “the man from earth” also touches on some of this, specifically the historical aspects of it. Not deeply, but they’re referenced.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:38 AM on August 11, 2018

Your ask reminds me vaguely of Yuval Noam Harari's A Short History of Mankind. He writes about this i think in one of the first few chapters, if I am not confusing books.
posted by 15L06 at 8:59 AM on August 11, 2018

Within the past 10 years or so, I recall reading an article in The New Yorker very much along these lines. It was a discussion of the human capacity for memory and recitation of oral histories prior to the invention of writing, and the nature of the human mind's storytelling structure. It contained an example of an experiment in which the stories of someone like a griot were recorded and then compared with the same stories decades later. It suggested that the invention of writing externalized memory but reduced human capacity. I've never forgotten the article, and it was amazing. But I haven't been able to find it with any form of Google-fu.
posted by Miko at 9:20 AM on August 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not exactly what you're looking for, but there's a book titled Orality & Literacy by Walter J. Ong which explores the effects on individuals and societies caused by a transition from oral to literate cultures.
posted by kmkrebs at 9:38 AM on August 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Here is the same topic of the (possibly nonexistent?) radiolab episode, and shows how language can alter perception. Basically the language provides the speaker with a 3rd person map of where they are in relation to everything else, and allows the speaker to carry a mental map of where things are in relation to NSEW axis instead of in relation to each other.

Not exactly what you’re looking for, but might get you in the right direction.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:04 AM on August 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

This may be the Radiolab episode.
posted by Laura_J at 1:03 PM on August 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

It might be Sapir-Worf, the idea that language affects how people think.

So far as I know, the strong version (language controls thought) is not respectable, but the idea that language affects thought has some evidence for it.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:05 PM on August 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Honestly I'm not sure which of these I read about, maybe all of them, but these answers are great and have given me a lot of follow-up reading. Thanks!
posted by Tehhund at 6:44 AM on August 12, 2018

Chiming in late to add that Relational Frame Theory is a post-Skinnerian account of language and cognition that forms the basis for psychotherapeutic treatments like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and has some good science behind it.
posted by soonertbone at 12:44 PM on August 14, 2018

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