Linguistic determinism in psychology, sci-fi, and sex
How language we use individually shapes our collective experience
I’ve written about how learning the term “Passion Economy” helped me see how much of my thinking these past few years has been about that topic — but it wasn’t until I learned the term that I was able to connect the dots.
My father, a retired professor and city bureaucrat who now spends most of his time writing poetry, sent an email about how the essay had reminded him of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
As my dad said, “Not having a word for a notion impairs the ‘getting’ of that idea.”
Of course, then I had to go down the Sapir-Whorf research rabbit hole, which quickly lead me to the concept of linguistic relativity. Simply put, “the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition, and thus people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language.”
The language you use affects how you think.
This theory makes perfect sense to me. Before the word “heteronormativity” was common, it was difficult for many of us to see how frequently we defaulted to assuming everyone was straight. Same with the newer phrase “amatonormativity” — the assumption that being partnered should be the default, and everyone unpartnered is defective or odd. Both these words help us see our assumptions. It’s just so much easier to spot the issue once you have a name for it; “Oh, that’s what that is!”
Before the term “cisgender” existed, we had transgender and… normal? Gross. The same is true of the word “neurotypical.” Now that we have these words to describe what used to be clustered in the grab bag of “normal” (a grab bag that conveniently pushes others out into the abyss of “abnormal”), it becomes easier for us to have compassion for the experiences of others.
“Oh, that’s what that is!”
In psychology & mindfulness
I had a similar eye-opening experience when I learned about the concept of anxious attachment. The term helped me see that my confusing patterns of behavior weren’t actually me — they were coping strategies learned in infancy and early childhood. They were common defense mechanisms — ones that had been named, tested, and heavily researched.
These behaviors weren’t just about my regrettable choices, they were adaptations. And they were really common! Once I had the words “triggered attachment system,” I was able to recognize and name the awful feelings that would come up when, say, someone didn’t text me back. Before that, it was just a terrible wave of awfulness that would engulf me and make me do regrettable things.
Being able to observe and name sensations and behaviors is an essential part of my mindfulness practice. The first step is being able to wake up just enough to witness your behavior.
“Wait, there’s a terrible feeling happening right now. Can I observe it for a moment?”
If you can pull back just long enough to observe it from a distance, sometimes then you can name it. Eventually, with a lot of practice, it gets easier to let it go. (After four years of daily practice, I would say I am now at a 5% Let It Go rate. This sounds small, but feels HUGE!) With practice, you can learn that you don’t have to take on the story as who you are.
Once I understood the concept of anxious attachment, I was able to observe and name a sensation (“ah, the attachment system is triggered”) instead of creating a whole narrative and identity about it (“OMG they didn’t text back because they don’t like me, and this always happens to me, I’m always rejected, people are never there for me, I’m always abandoned, and now I’m panicking, oh god what’s wrong with me why am I so worthless and unlovable, maybe I’ll text them ten more times until they write back!”).
Insert your favorite internal script that you repeat to yourself all day every day inside your head.
Learning new phrases like this can be powerfully liberating, helping you shift your perception, reframe your experiences, and expand your understanding of the world.
In science fiction
A great example of linguistic relativism in popular culture is the 2016 Amy Adams film, Arrival. For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the summary: a linguist learning an alien language has her entire experience of space and time transformed by the language itself.
Spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to (and you should! It’s lovely!), skip ahead to the next section.
So, in the movie, the aliens speak in circular sentences because they live in non-linear time. As the linguist learns to speak their language, she slips out of non-linear time, which leads to her saving the world!
That’s the power of language, know’m’ sayin’?!
In an interview about the movie, one linguist claimed that it’s less about linguistic relativity and more about the bolder theory of linguistic determinism:
The stronger view is called linguistic determinism, and that’s the view that language actually determines the way you see reality, the way you perceive it. That’s a much stronger claim. At one point in the movie, the character Ian [Jeremy Renner] says, “The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that if you immerse yourself in another language, you can rewire your brain.” And that made me laugh out loud, because Whorf never said anything about rewiring your brain. But since this wasn’t the linguist speaking, it’s fine that another character is misunderstanding the Sapir-Whorf.
It was funny in this movie to see this notion of the cyclicity of time. That’s really central in Whorf’s writings, that English speakers have a linear view of time, and it’s made up in individually packaged objects, days, hours, and minutes that march along from past to future, while the Hopi have a more cyclical notion that days aren’t separate things but that “day” is something that comes and goes.
So tomorrow isn’t another day. Tomorrow is day returning. You see that concept coming from Whorf into this movie was actually kind of fun.
I know it’s a leap to go from a sci-fi flick to new age woo-woo, but stay with me here: I feel like linguistic determism might explain part of why positive affirmations work. You’re using language (in this case, repeating a positive phrase) to change the way you see the world.
One study I read theorizes positive affirmations work because they “deemphasize the implications of a threat by placing it in a broader context.” When you repeat words in your head, they eventually become true. When you choose positive words, you’re reframing the threats in your life as less frightening.
Again: the language you speak affects how you understand the world.
Another way of thinking about linguistic determinism is that it’s the language equivalent of the Law of the Instrument: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When the only word you have is “normal,” everything else becomes “abnormal” and therefore threatening.
But what if you don’t need a hammer? How can we use language to develop different tools? How can we use language to create scalpels or tweezers, so that we can do different kinds of work? Or maybe tweezers aren’t the tools we need — perhaps we need vibrators and nipple clamps.
In sex and relationships
During my 15 years in a polyamorous relationship, I fielded a lot of questions from friends who were curious about trying the idea. Often, conversations would go like this:
Friend: So, we’ve been together for years, and things are feeling sort of boring and tedious. We don’t connect like we used to, and I’m attracted to connecting with other people. Should we open our relationship?
Me: Maybe? It’s challenging and takes a lot of communication to make it work, so here are a bunch of books you should read. They’ll give you some conversation starters and language that you can use to talk about it.
Months would go by, and then there’d be a conversation like this:
Friend: We read those books, and they blew our minds! We started talking about what agreements we would want to have, and both ended up crying. It was terrifying, but then we felt really close and connected… and suddenly the sex got really great so now neither of us are really interested in opening the relationship.
It turns out that the process of naming desires, being vulnerable about fears, and talking through the possibilities of polyamory can re-establish the connection in a relationship. It turns out, lots of folks actually don’t need an open relationship to find a new sense of connectedness — they just needed to find a new way to open themselves and connect to each other. The language of polyamory can provide a way to do that.
The language of open relationships is beneficial for monogamous folks because it introduces words that help them better understand their experiences, and see that the choices they’re making are choices. When the only words you have are “committed” or “cheating,” there’s not a lot of wiggle room.
When you introduce phrases like ethical non-monogamy, monogamish, escalator relationships, relationship anarchy, you can better understand the breadth of options. That understanding allows monogamy to become a considered choice, not a blind default… a default that many folks then resent. When you know you’ve got lots of options, you can make better choices for yourself. But without the language of polyamory, it’s hard to know what the options even are.
One of these useful poly phrases is “New Relationship Energy.” Known as NRE, it’s that intoxicating soup of chemicals and psychological attachments that make total evolutionary sense. Mammals need that combo of dopamine + oxytocin + excitement + desire to motivate us to take the risks required for sexual bonding!
But without the language and awareness about NRE, you might mistake the feeling for a fated, magically unique connection that demands immediate action (“I must drop everything to pursue this feeling!”). In actuality, NRE is a predictable, normal, temporary reaction (“My biological and psychological responses to sexual novelty are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, but that’s not necessarily me”). Not saying you shouldn’t quit your job, leave your spouse, and move across the country to pursue that hot new thang — but if you wait until the NRE has cooled down a bit, you can ensure that those are choices you want to make, instead of choices you’re compelled to make.
If the language around polyamory is excellent for helping monogamous folks understand the breadth of relationship dynamics, the language around BDSM is excellent for helping vanilla folks understand consent. No one knows how to talk about consent like smart kinky folks.
Here’s one example. This completely non-explicit video shows sex educator Zoë Ligon preparing for, and then doing a bondage session with Midori, a deeply respected author and artist specializing in the Japanese practice of shibari.
The whole video is worth watching (I dare you not to cry!), but starting at about the four-minute point, you get to see them explicitly discuss the expectations and boundaries for their session. The specificity is so beautiful! They share so openly about their goals for their time together, in ways that we could all benefit from on all our dates — even totally vanilla ones.
…Hell, even friend-dates could benefit from this level of explicit intention setting!
These methods for talking about intent and consent are bigger than just words and phrases, but again: when you have the linguistic framework of how to talk about something like consent, the ways you perceive that something changes.
When you see true consent in action, it’s hard to unsee the ways in which we typically just jam our hands down each other’s pants, fumbling around and hoping our partners can read our cues.
As polyamory and kink creep into the mainstream, I’ll be curious to see how language from those communities affects those of us in monogamous, vanilla relationships.
What does this mean for all of us, collectively?
I guess it makes sense that, as we develop words and language to describe what’s happening to us individually, we’re also collectively supporting each other in understanding what’s happening to ALL of us.
When one of us takes the risk to try to put our experiences into words, it’s not only about expressing our individual experience (although sure, that too!)… but, bigger picture, it’s about trying to give the collective more words to understand our collective experiences.
This is when the internet is at its best, I think: when we can normalize each other’s experiences, send little blasts out into the ether that are like “Wait, has anyone else felt like this?” and then have a little voice back from the darkness saying “Me! I’ve totally felt like that too!”
As a writer, it’s my honor to do this, even when sometimes it feels stupid. My son hates it when I make up words, and loves to correct me when I make up some new portmanteau to describe something.
But mangling language and sometimes humiliating myself is my purpose: I’m here to share my experiences to help other people feel less weird about their own. It’s a responsibility I take seriously — what am I giving voice to? What perceptions of the world am I shaping? If my stories are spells, what am I casting? If I write about my fears, what am I putting out into the world? I wrote about this years ago when I mused about community management and co-rumination — if I encourage others to share their miseries, what am I promoting?
There have been times when I’ve rolled my eyes at myself and been like, “Jesus Ariel, you’re a fucking lifestyle writer — it’s not that deep!” But linguistic determinism makes it clear that words have tremendous power in shaping how we understand and move through our worlds. I think that’s worth taking seriously.
MY QUESTIONS FOR YOU
- What words or phrases have opened your mind to whole new ways of understanding your world?
- Can you think back to times when the stories you told yourself ended up becoming true?
- Do you believe in affirmations or manifesting?
- What was your body’s physical reaction to the SEX STUFF video?
- How might you be able to use the words you speak to help create the world you want?