Linguistic Relativity: distinction without a difference

Here in China when you walk into our local Park & Shop megastore to pick up some things that you weren’t able to find in the market or campus grocery you first encounter the tissue section. They have all manner of tissues in all manner of packages – boxes, pocket sized plastic sleeves, family size packages. But here’s the thing: in China toilet paper, napkins, paper towels, kleenex-type tissues are all referred to as tissue. This is not purely an issue of semantics. In the public restrooms, if you are lucky enough to find toilet paper, it is often not in the stall but on a big roll by the sinks and people use it to dry their hands after washing them (and it falls apart and sticks to your wet fingers). Restaurants often provide little packets of tissues like those pocket-sized kleenex packages to serve as your napkins during the meal. We wanted to have napkins at home for meals and I poured over the many varieties of “tissue” at the store, taking a guess as to which package might most resemble what we were looking for. I ended up with several hundred kleenex instead – we are using them both as napkins and for noses. A couple of times we have attempted to explain the difference between these various paper goods to various acquaintances and service personnel. They merely look at us quizzically and say, “Tissue, right?”

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (linguistic relativity theory) states that language structures cognition (no citations again today, folks) – influencing what we know and how we act. The whole tissue thing is minor but I wonder how else language influences us. What distinctions do I miss on account of the linguistic orientation underlying my own perception?

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