It’s easier to prove or disprove a hypothesis in a well-defined area of experience that can be readily compared across languages. That’s why a lot of scholars interested in Benjamin Lee Whorf’s ideas focused their research on color. Because color is a physical property, determined by the wavelengths of light that are reflected or absorbed by an object, you might assume that all languages have just as many words for colors as there are colors in the world. But the human eye can distinguish around 1,000,000 different shades, and I’d be surprised if you could quickly name more than ten. Choices are evidently made about how we divide up the spectrum of visible light—and languages make those choices differently.
The exact manner in which languages slice up the spectrum—the way they happen to label colors—can have a measurable effect on our perception. Not exactly shocking. But there are more mind-boggling examples of Whorfian effects out there. Could the language you speak, for example, make you more likely to injure yourself, or even die?
Swedish is a north-Germanic language, very closely related to Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. It sits within the larger Indo-European language family, meaning it shares ancestors with English, French, Greek, Russian, and so on. Finnish, on the other hand, is part of the Finno-Ugric language family, which includes Hungarian and Estonian. The grammar and native vocabulary of these languages are completely different, despite the geographical proximity. The Swedish for “father” is far. In Finnish it’s isä. In Swedish “eye” is öga, in Finnish silmä.
While there is undoubtedly a deep linguistic divide, the Nordic neighbors have similar standards of living, legal systems and modes of social organization. There’s a huge amount of trade and cultural exchange, and around 300,000 ethnic Swedes live in Finland. It’s odd, then, given this cultural closeness, that the two countries should have sharply different rates of workplace accidents, with those in Finland being significantly higher. Even more bizarrely, this pattern holds among the Swedish minority in Finland: factories in Swedish-speaking areas are in line with the Swedish national rate. And we’re not simply talking about bumps and bruises. The industrial fatality rate among Swedes is 31 percent lower than for Finns.
Strange as it may seem, it’s possible that language holds the key. In Swedish, prepositions (words like “to,” “over,” “through,” etc.) allow for the fine-grained description of movements over time. Finnish, which relies more on case endings (those suffixes which tell you about the connections between words), tends to emphasize the static relationships of objects to one another. According to the psycholinguist John Lucy, linguists researching the discrepancy determined that “Finns organize the workplace in a way that favors the individual worker (person) over the temporal organization of the overall production process.” That kind of organization seems to reflect the way sequences of events are structured in the Finnish language. As a result, “Lack of attention to the overall temporal organization of the process leads to frequent disruptions in production, haste, and, ultimately, accidents.” [Continue reading…]