• Alysa Salzberg

Language’s unexpected impact on health

If you’re a fan of languages and linguistics, you probably know about the debate around the Whorfian hypothesis. Those who believe this hypothesis essentially think that the language a person speaks influences how they experience the world. Those who don't believe the Whorfian hypothesis, on the other hand, posit that it’s not the language we speak that influences how we see the world: it's a myriad of other factors, including culture, the universal human experience (we’ve all been in love, right?), and individual personalities.


Whether you’re pro-Whorfian or anti-Whorfian, though, it’s hard to deny that there is one way words may influence people’s thoughts about science, from dinosaurs, to medicine. A fascinating BBC article explores the sometimes strange outcomes of trying to communicate about the natural world when a language lacks terminology for them.


Equally challenging is what happens when a word for something does exist, but gives an inaccurate or negative meaning to a particular detail or phenomenon. For instance, the words used to formally refer to someone with Down syndrome in Swahili are dumazi or ndondocha. These mean “dwarf” or “zombie”.


When they’re in our own language, some scientific terms may have negative connotations we might not even realize (an idea that maybe gives an edge to us anti-Whorfians). Journalist and linguist Sibusiso Biyela points out that the English word “dinosaur” is derived from a Greek term that means “terrible lizard.” He’s opted to create a more neutral term for these beings in Zulu (a language that didn’t have a word for them before): isilwane sasemandulo, which translates to “ancient animal.”


Read on to discover more about the surprising relationship between science and language.



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