Retronyms and Sapir Whorf

I’ve gotten myself into another discussion of whether language shapes thought (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) or whether language is just a tool to express a thought (versus waving your hands or drawing a picture). As I mentioned in my first blog post, I believe language is just a tool and that thought is not necessarily linguistically based.
An implication of thought driving language is that you predict that a human can have a new thought then CREATE new terminology for it. This happens all the time, but an interesting case of this is the retronym or words which reflect new distinctions which did not exist in the past.
For instance, when I was growing up, we referred to the (then) recent past by the decades (e.g. the fifties, forties, sixties). Items designed from those decades would be referred to as “forties design” or “fifties design”. But recently a new term “midcentury design” has emerged to reflect collective trends from about the 30-70s depending on the design.
That is, as art historians began comparing past trends to more recent trends (e.g. 90’s/2000’s), they saw some similarities in form emerge that had been not as evident before. But did people in 1955 think of themselves as “midcentury”? I doubt it – they were “modern” just like we are (although we are really early 21st century).
What’s interesting to me about retronyms is that they show not just new words developing but that communities have the capability to reexamine their collective assumptions and reconceptualize their universe. They saw trends emerge and realized that a new name was needed – hence “midcentury”. A need to express a new thought drove innovation in the language.
Now I won’t deny there are interesting differences in vocabulary across languages, but I think they reflect thought rather than constrain it. For instance, I am certain that peoples of the Arctic have more terms for snow than those in more temperate climates. But then again, so do English-speaking skiers. The vocabulary merely shows that these speakers know their snow. But you can be sure that a speaker of Arabic (a “desert” language) would surely be able to understand differences in snow conditions if he or she takes up skiing or dog sledding as a hobby. The mind is flexible enough to adapt.
And I am glad that thought is powering this engine and not language. Because if this weren’t true we’d never be able to explore and explain the complexity or snow or the sand. We’d also be trapped in a world which didn’t have innovations like “democracy”, “multicultural diversity” or “civil liberties.” A scary thought indeed.

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