How Language Shapes Our Reality

Photo by Leonardo Toshiro Okubo on Unsplash

Language is Symbolic

Imagine a written language that uses different letters than your own language(s). Specifically, please consider a language that you do not know how to read: Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Assyrian, etc. When you see written words in an alphabet that you do not know how to read, what do those letters and words mean to you? They probably mean absolutely nothing to you; they probably look like scribbles. If you were to see an Arabic or Japanese word painted on the side of a building, you wouldn’t take away any actual meaning from the symbols on the building.

Language and Symbols are Arbitrary

Consider the English word, “book” and Arabic work “kitab” example. Neither of those words are inherently connected to the actual thing being discussed. For example: Imagine the written word “book” or the Arabic letters “Khaa” + “taa” + “baa” that spell “kitab” and consider that none of those letters draw the picture of a book when they are combined. Similarly, the letters are not an acronym for anything. Both words are simply the symbols that humanity, somewhat randomly, selected to carry meaning. Then, when we use these words in their cultural sense, we give them meaning, or reinforce established meaning, or change the meaning, or reclaim the meaning, etc. Words, letters, and all symbols are arbitrary (they don’t carry any inherent meaning) (Whorf VIII, 31).

Cultural Symbols (and Language) Evolve To Meet Changing Needs

We can turn to emojis to understand how symbols evolve over time to better adapt to our cultural needs. For example, the emoji that conveys the meaning “I’m laughing so hard that I’m crying,” was created because we are fortunate enough to live in a world that we experience that feeling often. If our culture didn’t include so much wonderful humor, we wouldn’t need an emoji to convey that emotion. New symbols are often created as a shortcut to convey new meaning. For example, we can type “I’m laughing so hard that I’m crying” every time we feel that way, but that’s very lengthy. So, instead, our culture developed the acronym “ROFL” to express something similar until emojis were developed. Both help us to convey that meaning quickly. (Whorf, 105) (Seargeant, 2019, p.61)

We Combine Symbols to Convey New Meaning

Symbols, of course, do not exist only in the literal sense, but we can use symbols of other symbols in our life. Consider the “thumbs up” emoji. Historically, that symbol is a hand gesture that symbolizes approval or understanding (sometimes sarcastically). In order to utilize that cultural hand gesture, we’ve created an emoji to mean the same thing. As you know, that hand gesture was then applied to social media to symbolize that you “like” something and “liking” now carry a lot of cultural power (consider how some make an entire living from social media).


Symbolic anthropology is related to linguistics (the study of human language). Linguists study human language and symbolic anthropologists examine human culture as a symbolic language. The symbols that we examine include: letters, body language, colors, traditions, ceremonies, clothing, gift-giving, etc. As you already know, “learn the local language” is one of the essential steps of participant observation, and you’ll be expected to apply that step in your emic and etic papers. It’s likely that you’ll already speak the language(s) of the people that you study. But, when you meet with your community, you’ll likely hear new slang or professional language that you’ve never heard before. Or, for example, maybe you’re studying a Jewish temple and you learn that this community uses the word “Rabbi” to refer to their religious leaders. If you learn that word for the first time during your fieldwork, then you’re successfully fulfilling the obligation to learn their local language. When you learn and strive to understand these new words, you’ll be practicing participant observation.

Intro to The Whorf Sapir Hypothesis

Benjamin Lee Whorf was a linguist who had a particularly unique background, and who’s academic and professional research directly influenced the research of many who came after him. Benjamin Lee Whorf lived from 1897 to 1941 (Whorf & Carroll 1), but he was not originally an anthropologist or linguist, at all. In fact, Whorf worked as a fire prevention engineer for an insurance company in the United States (Whorf & Carroll 4). His insurance company needed him to visit the homes that had burned down, and to identify the cause of the fires. Interestingly enough, Whorf noticed over and over again that Americans we’re placing “empty” gas canisters next to heaters or open flames in their garages. (Whorf, 1997, p.2; Whorf & Carroll 135; White, 1990, p.18). When Whorf tried to explain to these policyholders that the empty gas canister had caused the fire, they were generally unable to understand what mistake they had made. This is because in the English language the word “empty” means that something is void of danger. Perhaps you already know that gasoline vapor is more flammable than liquid gasoline. So, in reality, placing an empty gas canister near a flame is very likely to catch on fire (in spite of the fact that we would describe it as empty). It was during this first-hand experience that Benjamin Lee Whorf realized that language literally shapes our ability to engage with reality (Eastmen, 30–31).

The Whorf Sapir Hypothesis is also known as “linguistic relativity”

Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that language is developed arbitrarily and that our language does not reflect reality but that, rather, our reality is determined by the language that we have. If you want to test his hypothesis, take a moment and sit in complete silence. When you are sitting in complete silence try and turn off your brain and stop any words from popping up. If you sit there, in silence, thinking to yourself “stop thinking! I’m not supposed to have words right now…why can’t I stop thinking?” Then you understand that we rely heavily on words to process our thoughts, feelings, and to describe and interpret what happens around us. It’s very challenging to simply experience life without assigning words to our experiences.

Supplementary Audio

NPR: “The Word Of The Year Is They”

Works Cited

Axelrod. Unit 1006 Learning Our Language. Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse, 1968.



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Amanda Zunner-Keating

Amanda Zunner-Keating

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles