“Whorf’s analysis of the differences between English and (in one famous instance) the Hopi language raised the bar for an analysis of the relationship between language, thought, and reality by relying on close analysis of grammatical structure, rather than a more impressionistic account of the differences between, say, vocabulary items in a language. For example, “Standard Average European” (SAE)—i.e., Western languages in general—tends to analyse reality as objects in space: the present and future are thought of as “places”, and time is a path linking them. A phrase like “three days” is grammatically equivalent to “three apples”, or “three kilometres”. Other languages, including many Native American languages, are oriented towards process. To monolingual speakers of such languages, the concrete/spatial metaphors of SAE grammar may make little sense. Whorf himself claimed that his work on the SWH was inspired by his insight that a Hopi speaker would find relativistic physics fundamentally easier to grasp than an SAE speaker would.”
“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”
(Sapir, 1958 , p. 69)
“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.”
(Whorf, 1940, pp. 213–14)
George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a striking example of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity in fiction, in which a language known as Newspeak has trimmed and supplanted Modern English. In this case, Orwell says that if humans cannot form the words to express the ideas underlying a revolution, then they cannot revolt. All of the theory of Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words. For example, bad has been replaced by ungood, and the concept of freedom has been eliminated over time. According to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s appendix on Newspeak, the result of the adoption of the language would be that “a heretical thought … should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.
In Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune and its sequels, the Principle of Linguistic Relativity first appears when Lady Jessica (who has extensive linguistic training) encounters the Fremen, the native people of Dune. She is shocked by the “violence” of their language, as she believes their word choices and language structure reflect a culture of enormous violence. Similarly, earlier in the novel, her late husband, Duke Leto, muses on how the nature of Imperial society is betrayed by “the precise delineations for treacherous death” in its language, the use of highly specific terms to describe different methods for delivering poison.
Samuel R. Delany’s novel Babel-17 is centered on a fictional language that denies its speakers independent thought, forcing them to think purely logical thoughts. This language is used as a weapon of war, because it is supposed to convert everyone who learns it to a traitor. In the novel, the language Babel-17 is likened to computer programming languages that do not allow errors or imprecise statements.
Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash revolves around the notion that the Sumerian language was a programming language for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter program which he calls a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different tongues as a protection against Asherah.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed takes place partly on a world with an anarcho-communist society whose constructed language contains little means for expressing possessive relationships, among other features.
Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem presents a collectivist dystopia where the word “I” is banned, and any that use it are put to death.
Robert Silverberg’s novel A Time of Changes describes a society where the first person singular is considered an obscenity.
In Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith is able to do things that most other humans can’t do, and is unable to explain any of this in English. However, once others learn Martian, they start to be able to do these things; those concepts could only be explained in Martian.
In Jorge Luis Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius the author discovers references in books to a universe of idealistic individuals whose language lacks the concept of nouns and has other peculiarities that shapes their idealism. As the story progresses the books become more and better known to the world at large, their philosophy starts influencing the real world, and Earth becomes the ideal world described in the books.
In Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life,” language directly determines thought, Learning the written language used by alien visitors to the Earth allows the person who learns the language to think in a different way, in which the past and future are illusions of conventional thought. This allows people who understand the language to see their entire life as a single unchangeable action, from past to future.