Updated: Dec 23, 2019

By Shane Morris

As I watched “Arrival”, a movie about aliens descending to Earth and their interaction with a human linguist, I got thinking about the science behind the movie. This wasn’t the physics of space travel or the anatomy of the visitors but the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis*, the principle that language shapes a speaker’s world view or cognition. It is generally divided into two hypothesises; 1) the strong, language determines how we perceive the world, and 2) the weak, that language influences thought and decisions. “Arrival” deals with the strong hypothesis, and in this article I will deal with the weak, connecting these thoughts to my research on conservation translocations and proposing a new name for a scientific technique.

There are some fascinating examples of the interplay between language and cognition. The Kuuk Thaayore of Cape York, North Australia, have amazing navigational abilities, which is enabled by their language using only absolute directions (North, South, East, West and everything in between) rather than also using relative directions (like right, left in English)1. So, if a Kuuk Thaayore asked you to set the table you could be told to but the fork on the North North-West side and the knife on the South South-East side of the plate! An English speaker may take a few seconds to orientate themselves, while in contrast the Kuuy Thayore have spent their lives expressing themselves with absolute directions. This is quite an extreme example, but language can also influence how we categorise things due to the relationships it creates in our minds1. Many Indo-European languages have arbitrarily assigned gender to common and abstract nouns, for instance in Spanish the word “key” is feminine while in German it is masculine. It has been shown to influence the speakers of these languages perception for when asked to describe a “key”. Spanish speakers will use words like “intricate”, “lovely”, “little” and “shiny”, while German speakers use “hard”, “heavy”, “serrated” and ”useful”.  And before you think that’s because Spanish speakers are passionate and Germans are practical, or some other stereotype, this trend is consistent when a word in each language is chosen with the gender reversed [1].

Kuuy Thayore and Lera Boroditsky

These examples are about the fundamentals of the language and we are therefore stuck with them, but the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is of great importance when we need new terms for new ideas. In his book “The Invention of Science”, the historian of science, Daniel Wooton writes “a revolution in ideas requires a revolution in language”. Wooton argues, that Christopher Columbus never said he discovered America (he used invenio meaning find out) because the word, in fact the very concept of discovery did not exist at that point.  Before the Age of Exploration, Western culture gazed backwards convinced that all worthwhile information had already been discovered in ancient Athens or Rome. Columbus and his crew had experienced something entirely unknown to the Western civilisations of yore. This then shifted the focus of Western culture to one which, to paraphrase Wooton, recognised experience as the path to discovery, and promptly ushered in the Scientific Revolution [2].

At this point you may be asking what a movie about aliens; cardinal direction use by Aboriginal Australians and Christopher Columbus have to do with conservation translocations? You may even be wondering what a conservation translocation is.  A conservation translocation is the movement of a species from one place to another to confer a conservation benefit [3]. In recent decades, these have become an increasing popular tool in conservation biology but are very controversial amongst scientists in this field [4,5]. The most contentious type of conservation translocation is the movement of a species to an area in which there is no evidence that it had previously inhabited. The main concern, an extremely valid concern, is that these have the potential to cause disastrous, unforeseen circumstances. This debate is beyond the scope of this article but one that isn’t is what this technique should be called, this may seem frivolous on the surface, yet it could have larger implications for its perception by the public. I considered this while watching “Arrival”, how the term we use for this last type of translocation may shape its future. Before you scoff at the seemingly superficial importance of a name, consider that a recent study carried out by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that the language used was key to a treatment garnering higher public support. In this study, 29 percent of people were in favour of “safe consumption sites” yet this rose to 45 percent when “overdose prevention sites” was used [6].

The names currently being used for the controversial translocation technique are assisted colonisation, assisted migration, benign introduction and managed relocation. Connie Barlow argues that assisted colonisation should not be used due to its “hegemonic overtones” and its association with invasive species [7]. Societies that have experienced the suffering caused by colonialism are likely to oppose ideas outright due to associations with past traumas. Malcom Hunter rightly argues against assisted migration as migration is already defined within ecology to mean a round trip, which this would not be [8]. I oppose the term benign introduction as it is inherently misleading, making the act seem non-interventionist when the antithesis is true. Managed relocation may be the best of a bad bunch but seem more applicable to moving office, than an endangered species! It suffers from the same problems as “safe consumption sites”, it is frigid and vague.

On the advice of Maya Angelou “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” I won’t complain but try and change the thing I don’t like. My proposed name is assisted transmigration. The definition of transmigration is “to move from one place, state, or stage to another”. This captures the essence of what is trying to be achieved, we are not only moving a species from one place to another but from one state (endangered) to another (non-endangered). But perhaps you don’t agree with this term. What would you call it? For what it is called may turn out to be important.

*An interesting aside is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is itself shaping how the idea is/was perceived. Edward Sapir ad Benjamin Lee Whorf were famous linguists at the turn of the last century who wrote about the effect they perceived language to have on cognition however they never co-authored any works together and never formulated a hypothesis! So, the name of the idea that is about language shaping thought has been named to heighten the prestige of the idea!

All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members


Boroditsky, L 2009, How does our language shape the way we think? Edge, accessed 7 November 2018, < https://www.edge.org/conversation/lera_boroditsky-how-does-our-language-shape-the-way-we-think >.

Wootton, D., 2015. The invention of science: a new history of the scientific revolution. Penguin UK.IUCN, S., 2013. Guidelines for reintroductions and other conservation translocations. Gland Switz Camb UK IUCNSSC Re-Introd Spec Group.

Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Hughes, L., McIntyre, S., Lindenmayer, D.B., Parmesan, C., Possingham, H.P. and Thomas, C.D., 2008. Assisted colonization and rapid climate change. Science 321 (5887), pp 345-346.

Ricciardi, A. and Simberloff, D., 2009. Assisted colonization is not a viable conservation strategy. Trends in ecology & evolution, 24(5), pp.248-253.

Barry, C.L., Sherman, S.G. and McGinty, E.E., 2018.  Language Matters in Combatting the Opioid Epidemic: Safe Consumption Sites Versus Overdose Prevention Sites. American Journal of Public Health; 108 (9): pp 1157

Barlow, C 2009. Pro “Assisted Migration” as the term of reference. Torreya Guardians, accessed 7 November 2018, <http://www.torreyaguardians.org/assistedmigrationdebate.html&gt;

Hunter Jr, M.L., 2007. Climate change and moving species: furthering the debate on assisted colonization. Conservation Biology, 21(5), pp.1356-1358.


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