You are what you speak


If you regularly read any of my blogs, you'll already know I like a bit of Radio4 when I can get it. And on Tuesday afternoon, as I cooked tea for the children in the kitchen, I had the joy of nearly a full half hour of uninterrupted radio time.

As it turned out, it was very much the right half hour. I tuned in after the first 5 minutes of Word of Mouth , just in time to hear them investigate how closely language is related to our experience of the world around us, starting with George Orwell's 'Newspeak', invented for his novel 1984. Perfect brain food for me. We talk alot about the use of language in The Wise Hippo Birthing Programme - about our cultural words around birth, about how birth professionals talk to couples, and about how couples write their birthing plans - and I was fascinated to hear how our own approach was so well mirrored by academics.

'Newspeak' reflects the theory of 'strong' Linguistic Determinism - the theory that categories and constructions in language determine as well as limit cognitive categories. Or, put another way, our words and the way we use them can affect the way we perceive & interpret the world around us as the experiences themselves. In 1984 Orwell uses 'Newspeak' to show what this might mean - in his novel it becomes almost impossible to criticise the government because 'Newspeak' doesn't offer the facility to express political criticism. It's quite a concept - and one that brings together anthropology, psychology & philosophy, as well as linguistics.

Orwell's idea that language has consequences for human experience and behaviour wasn't new (although it was topical, as you can imagine, as Orwell was writing in 1948, as both Western & Eastern dictatorships were in flux). The philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt saw language as the 'spirit of the nation' in the 18th century, by which he meant that language binds social groups not just in communication, but also in experience and purpose. In the early 20th century Edward Sapir & Benjamin Lee Whorf - who are so commonly linked to the notions of linguistic determinism & relativism that the theory itself is, inaccurately, called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis - used research (which has subsequently been called to question) to substantiate the idea. And although the Determinist link between language and cognition fell out of favour in the 1960's, a 'Relativist' approach is still widely accepted. In other words, there is recognition that language has a notable impact on how we perceive and what we interpret of the world around us, as well as our universal human experiences.

So how does that link directly to hypnobirthing?

Well, the best example is how we think of the sensations of labour. While they are culturally ascribed as 'contractions' or 'labour pains' women are led to expect to suffer in labour. In hypnobirthing first we un-hitch the language (teaching couples that 'pain' is a subjective word, an emotional interpretation of a nerve signal, a cultural semiotic meaning something is wrong), then we re-frame it (helping women understand that those sensations in labour are not a signal that something is wrong, that there is no need to be distressed or to suffer). And more than that, we give couples accurate information about what is actually happening in their bodies while they experience those sensations. We know that women do actually experience in a different way as a result of that combination of language and information.

So what's your experience? Can you think of situations where language led expectation and interpretation of experience? what do you think?


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