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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Hadodo

Sorry: Exercising Linguistic Relativity

(Originally published July 13, 2014)

A good way to begin a blog on the relationship between language, society and culture would be to start with the concept of linguistic relativity. Often called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (in honor of the anthropologists associated with it), the principle states that the structure of a specific language affects the way in which its speakers view the world, think and process information.

Now, this idea has been debated since becoming part of the public conscience in the early 20th century. Most people dismiss the “strong” version (language completely determines thought and behavior) in favor of the “weak” one (language in part influences cognitive and social output) and lots of cool studies have been done to show the extent to which different cultures act differently because of the language(s) they speak.

For example, we can assume that an intrinsic understanding of others’ wishes occurs in languages like Spanish and Greek, which have a strongly defined subjunctive mood, as opposed to ones like English, which do not. It’s not surprising that Spanish and Greek-speaking communities tend to be considered more collectivist as opposed to the more independent English speaking ones. Of course, this is not only the result of the existence of the subjunctive in the language, but an interesting correlation nonetheless.

What’s interesting to think about then, is to what extent do different communities who speak dialects of the same language act distinctly from one another. In other words, do Canadians and Americans act or think differently from one another because of differences in our speech? Well, a common stereotype of Canadians is how polite they are, especially in contrast with their rowdier southern neighbors. Why is this? A possible explanation could be their use of the word “sorry,” which is used in many more contexts of Canadian speech than in that of the UK, US or even Australia. This is what is called a marked feature (an element whose use stands out), which in Canada’s case, has been conventionalized such that its current use does not always align with the original meaning or intended effect. Because Canadians say “sorry” when they are not necessarily sorry, the result is a more polite or courteous perception of them among other native English speakers.

What do you think? Are Canadians actually more polite than other English speakers? If so, is it because of what they say and how they speak? What other examples of language impacting culture can we come up with? I’m curious to hear your comments!

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