It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?
Imagine that everything you thought you knew, every thought you ever had, didn’t originate from you. What if someone or something else prescripted your thinking?
That’s the idea behind Whorf’s hypothesis. And it’s had a powerful influence on linguistics and psychology. But more important for writers, it’s a gold mine for plot and character ideas.
Wait, what is Whorf’s hypothesis?
Whorf’s Hypothesis: The Quick What-It-Is
First off, you might hear this idea called linguistic relativity or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or just Whorfianism. And it’s the idea that language determines thought. That’s the short version. What Whorf’s hypothesis really means, though, is that the structure of language decides how we think and how we see the world.
We can look it like this. Our brains are a railroad system that language designed. Our thoughts have no choice but to follow these predetermined routes. There’s some flexibility in the direction we go, but generally we can go only where the track is already laid.
Some people take this idea to full mind control status. Author, George Orwell was one of these. More on that later.
Some take Whorf’s hypothesis a little lighter. They say that language only influences thought rather than fully controls it. Either way, the concept is a powerful one, don’t you think?
Whorf’s hypothesis is self-evidently true, if you ask me. There’s no doubt that the way we say things affects behavior. What do I mean by that? Here’s a quick example.
I overheard the husband coaching one of his colleagues by phone today. She was looking for advice on how to communicate better with her boss. The husband, an ENFP, is great at verbal persuasion. (This is an ENFP power that some call “manipulation.” But I like him today, so we’ll call it verbal persuasion.)
His advice to his colleague?
Avoid using the word “but.” That’s it. Why does that matter? Because the word “but” signals that an excuse is on the way. Instead, use the word “and.” Here’s the difference in action.
Boss: “You were late today. Are you aware that’s a problem?”
Which response is better?
“Yes I’m aware of that, but I got a flat tire today.” Versus: “Yes I’m aware of that, and I got a flat tire today.”
Do you feel the difference? The first one sounds like an excuse. All due to that little “but.” The second sentence sounds like someone taking accountability and providing extra context. With the change of one word, the meaning becomes a special circumstance that won’t happen again and needs no extra coaching from boss. And boss is likely to dismiss the issue.
That’s Whorf’s hypothesis in action. Or just a taste of it. Imagine how far and deep it really goes if you do a little research. Just how much does language affect our minds?
I’m sure you can think of darker examples. Here are a few from literature.
Whorf’s Hypothesis In Literature
George Orwell’s dystopian scifi novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, explores linguistic relativism. The fictional authoritarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four creates a language called “Newspeak” that makes critical thought about the government impossible.
And it isn’t the only novel to explore the concept. In Ayn Rand’s Anthem, a totalitarian government banishes “I” from the language to eliminate individualistic thinking.
How could you use Whorf’s hypothesis in your storytelling? Here are just a few ideas.
Ways Writers Can Use Whorf’s Hypothesis in Fiction
- Develop a science fictional species that communicates without language. Consider Whorf’s hypothesis, and explore how the lack of language might affect their behavior. How would they persuade each other? Would they be more creative? Write down five plot ideas.
- Read The Character Most Writers Get Wrong. Notice that this type of character, the INTJ, doesn’t think in words as much as other MBTI types. Consider that language is socially constructed and that INTJs are the type least constrained by social convention. If language does affect thought, and INTJs don’t think in words, how much of that is the reason for other common INTJ behaviors? How might a character like this succumb to or resist language traps? Write down five plot ideas using this method.
- Are children more creative because they have yet to fully internalize language? How much does language play a role in repressing creativity in adults? Create a child character who slowly loses creativity as he learns language.
- Can we practice wordless thought? What would that look like? Design a religion for your story in which characters practice wordless thought in hopes it will lead them to a better understanding of God.
- Create a character who has studied Whorfianism. How might he use what he learned to achieve a goal in your story? An ENFP would make a great character core for this concept as they are naturals at persuasion and using the effects words have on others. (If this prompt intrigues you, be sure to add your email address to the box below. I’m working on a series of articles on how to use MBTI personality typing to design highly complex characters for fiction. If you’re not sure what MBTI is, don’t worry. I’ll cover that in the series.)
Want more? Try 58 Science Fiction Writing Prompts.