14 August 2014

Adjective Valence and Linguistic Relativity

There is a concept in linguistics that I could have sworn I’ve read about, but now cannot seem to find mention of anywhere. I call it adjective valence, and examining it can give you insight into how you conceptualise the world around you, how language influences and is influenced by that, and where language is lacking.

The valence of an adjective is its directionality—whether the word is perceived as the essential quality of a trait (positive valence) or its antonym (negative valence), and in what direction the axis goes in spatial metaphors concerning that trait.

For example, hot and cold are antonyms. We can observe that hot has positive valence in English by noting that when something gets hotter, its temperature is said to increase; cold has negative valence because when something gets colder, its temperature decreases. It’s fine for a thing to become more hot, but our language makes it slightly unusual to say less cold for the same concept. This has a sound physical basis: a higher temperature implies a higher average internal kinetic energy.

Not all languages have the same valence for all adjectives. For example, in English, we think of ourselves as moving forward in time, that the future is before us and the past is behind us. This valence leads to many idioms such as “I’m looking forward to it” and “put it behind you”. But in the Aymara language, the future is behind you—after all, you can’t see it—and the past is in front. This was also true in Ancient Greek (ὄπισθεν = behind = in the future, πρόσθεν = in front = in the past) and modern Chinese shows some evidence of a switch from front-past to front-future.

We can use this information to discover linguistic assumptions we make about the world. By inverting the valence of an adjective, we can challenge those assumptions and perhaps achieve insights about whether our intuitions correspond to real physical phenomena. For example, let’s replace temperature with its reciprocal, such that “absolute zero” is considered infinitely high on the scale of coldness. If this were our basic assumption, we would have no trouble accepting that such a temperature is unattainable in any physical system. And it turns out that that quantity, the thermodynamic beta, is a useful one, rigorously defined in terms of the energy and entropy of a system.

This is an argument in favour of the weak form of linguistic relativity, the notion that language influences thought. It’s not difficult to consider the implications of inverting the valence of an adjective, but we rarely think to do so, and talking about the implications is often hilariously difficult. This metal ball has a high mass, and a low—what? Take notice of these things in conversation and try inverting them to peek behind the curtain of your own thoughts.