The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
The language we speak fundamentally affects how we perceive and understand the world around us.
First proposed by Edwin Sapir in 1929 and later developed by Benjamin Wharf, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis demonstrates how a speaker’s mother tongue impacts the way they think and behave.
For example, native English speakers instinctively know the difference between yellow and orange.
However, the Zuni language has only one word to represent both colours. Native speakers therefore report being unable to see the difference between the two.
Another recent colour experiment in Namibia found similar results for the Himba tribe.
In this instance, the tribe has no word for the colour blue. When tested, they found it difficult to distinguish between it and the colour green.
If we don’t have a word for something, it’s hard for us to conceptualise and reinforce it socially.
Advertising agencies have instinctively known about this and used it to their advantage.
In order to create a social norm, you need for it to be codified in the language.
If such a word doesn’t exist then you can create one.
One of the most famous and enduring examples of this is the term ‘designated driver’.
Developed by a Canadian PR agency in order to discourage drink driving, the term quickly spread around the English speaking world. It was written into film, soaps and TV scripts which further normalised its usage.
As a result, people in social situations where alcohol being served no longer feel such a social stigma and are comfortable being the ‘designated driver.’