Sapir-Whorf and Worldbuilding

During my early years, I thought that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was overblown. Then I wrote Saga of the Swordbreaker.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity, states that the structure of a language influences its speakers’ cognition. A natural corollary is that by switching to a different language, you change the way you think.

The most famous example of linguistic theory in fiction is in George Orwell’s 1984. To quote:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

If you have no words to express something, the argument goes, you cannot even think it. Thus, if you have no words to express dissent, dissent becomes unthinkable, and therefore impossible.

Another contemporary example comes in Kingdoms of Death by Christopher Ruocchio. In that novel, protagonist Hadrian Marlowe travels to the Lothrian Commonwealth in hopes of securing an alliance against an alien invasion. The Lothrian language is engineered to erase all forms of individuality, and with it, the possibility of dissent.

For example, there is no word for ‘I’ in Lothrian. There is only ‘a man’, regardless of whether the speaker is male or female. There is no room for individual thought; official minders keep foreign dignitaries on a tight leash, and the only things they can say are the official aphorisms the state permits them to say. To understand the Lothrian tongue, you must consider the context and subtext, alongside what is verbalised.

Linguistic relativity in worldbuilding is most famously employed in describing totalitarian societies. But suppose you want to write something other than a dystopia. How else can you employ this concept? In this post, let’s explore how the very nature of the Chinese language influenced the worldbuilding of Saga of the Swordbreaker.

High Versus Low Context Cultures

All my life, I struggled to converse with native Singlish speakers. Singlish is the creole of Singapore, combining the vocabulary of English, the grammar of Chinese, and loanwords from around the region. I found Singlish an extremely frustrating language, because it employs the words of a low-context language, but the logic of a high-context language.

In a low-context culture, communication is explicit, direct and straightforward. What you see and hear is what you get. Words have fixed meanings. Information is completely integrated into communication; there is no need to go hunting for additional contextual clues. This is English in a nutshell.

Chinese, on the other hand, is a high-context language, by necessity. It is a tonal language, and every word sounds like a dozen other words. In verbal communication, the only way to figure out which words are being said is to take in the entirety of the context. You need to consider every word in the sentence, as well as the context of what is being said. Words themselves do not have discrete meanings, but instead represent a range of concepts.

Take the word qi (气). Readers of cultivation fiction will immediately recognise the term for life energy. That is one of the meanings of qi. It also carries the connotations of air, gas, breath, sky, atmosphere, spirit. Thus we have the following words:

天气: weather (literally: sky qi)

客气: politeness, etiquette, hospitality (literally: guest qi)

氧气: oxygen (pronounced: yang qi)

阳气: yang qi (meaning: yang energy)

元气: vital energy (pronounced: yuan qi)

怨气: resentment (pronounced: yuan qi)

生气: anger or vitality (depending on context)

When a person speaks in Chinese, he isn’t expressing a meaning so much as he is expressing a concept. The listener must decode what is being said by assessing the context of the statement.

Singlish borrows heavily from English, a low-context language. But Singlish speakers use the conventions of a high-context culture. This means that Singlish words do not necessarily reflect the original meanings of the English words, but also related concepts adjacent to the original meaning. And Singlish speakers expect you to figure out the context of what is being said. With one word taking the place of multiple words, this results in a narrowing of thought and ability for cogent expression.

Take the word ‘straight’. In the English language, ‘straight’ means ‘straight’: free from bends and curves, OR exactly horizontal or vertical. In Singlish, ‘straight’ means ‘upright’, ‘lying down’, ‘horizontal’, ‘vertical’, ‘diagonal’, ‘flush’, ‘orderly’, ‘even’, ‘aligned’, ‘direct’, and even, on occasion, ‘straight’.

This may sound amusing, until a frustrated Singaporean air steward requests an even more frustrated British passenger to ‘put his luggage straight’ in the luggage compartment.

Both air steward and passenger have different ideas of what ‘straight’ means. The air steward unconsciously expects the passenger to incorporate the context into the situation. The passenger believes the air steward is speaking English, and so is utterly confused.

All this could be solved simply by saying ‘place the luggage flush inside the compartment’—but in Singapore, the word ‘flush’ is normally reserved for toilets. Real-life cultural conflicts like the one I’ve described above make excellent fodder for fiction.

Western cultivation fiction writers have the opposite problem. They are native English speakers. They write in English. They carry the logic of a low-context language with them into their fiction. Their characters act, think and talk as though they come from a low-context culture.

But they borrow heavily from a high-context culture.

This shows in the little things. They have characters talking directly, even rudely, to one another, a major social faux pas and a source of intense aggravation in Asian societies. Or their characters are from low-context cultures but use terms from high-context cultures, and treat those terms as organic to their home cultures—but use them in a low-context way.

Here’s an example: a story is set in a culture inspired by the Vikings. Everyone has Scandinavian names, they dress like Vikings, they have Viking titles like berserker and jarl… and they also ‘cultivate’ and ‘refine qi’ and ‘grow their dao’.

This is outrageous. Vikings worshipped a pantheon of gods; they did not embark on internal self-cultivation, most certainly not to the extent the Chinese did. Their worldview is shaped by their harsh environments, by a need to conquer and impose their will on an inhospitable environment—not a desire to harmonise themselves with the universe, which is the ultimate purpose of cultivation. And there is no such thing as ‘growing dao’.

This breaks suspension of disbelief. It becomes immediately apparent that the author is simply cashing in on current Kindle trends by slamming together tropes from popular genres instead of taking the time to do the research. They treat both cultures with wanton disrespect, reducing them to nothing more than commodities. They don’t care about the craft or culture—only about chasing the Next Big Trend.

When crafting a world, go beyond just surface details like how a house is built or the titles the people use for each other. Dive into how people of that culture will think. That is reflected in their language, religious rituals, history. One major clue lies in the context of that culture.

A low-context culture will be familiar to Westerners: direct speech, explicit communication, individualism. A high-context culture favours interpersonal relationships, indirect communication to avoid giving offense, unspoken expectations to suit communication to the context of the situation. Someone from a high-context culture is going to operate much differently from a low-context culture.

In Dawn of the Broken Sword, an early chapter has Li Ming attending a job interview to become a biaohang, an armed escort. The interview is facilitated through his father’s connections—an important aspect of Chinese culture. He presents a handwritten letter of introduction from his father, obeying the rules of etiquette in the rivers and lakes. The letter itself isn’t important; the fact that his father took the time to write it signals its worth, as did its safe arrival. During the interview, the interviewer issues a subtle test. Li Ming spots it, and replies with equal subtlety, talking around the subject on the surface while dealing with the heart of the matter through subtext. Both men laugh, each recognising what the other is really saying. This entire interaction is governed by the unspoken cultural norm of maintaining social harmony.

The entire sequence was based on the norms of a high-context culture. A job interview in a low-context culture would play out differently. And in an emergency, the rules change.

During the combat sequences of Saga of the Swordbreaker, everyone shifts into a low-context communication mode. They use simple, straightforward language, speaking directly to whomever they need to talk to. When a horde of monsters are charging you from behind a barrage of magical fireballs, the last thing you need is to guess who is saying what to whom. This shift in context also highlights the seriousness of the situation, adding to its intensity.

The culture of a setting influences how characters from that culture would talk, think and act. The language they speak shapes how they would express themselves.

But how do you express the ineffable?

That Which Cannot Be Said

Christianity is an external-oriented religion. Christians go to church, participate in rituals alongside fellow believers, direct their prayers to God. After death, the faithful go to Heaven, while sinners go to Hell. The faith is expressed through what you do, where you go, whom you associate with, what you pray to. It draws reference from phenomena external to the practitioner.

Daoism and Buddhism are internal-oriented religions. While there are places of worship, deities, dogma, communities of believers and the like, they are secondary tenets. The core practice of these faiths is to transform your mind—that is, your inner state.

Daoism gave the world the concept of 仙 (xian). In English it is rendered as ‘immortal’; after all, the Daoists seek immortality. But they do not seek immortality of the body, but rather of the spirit. Specifically, the ability to transcend the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Bodily immortality is seen as a byproduct of spiritual immortality, a natural consequence of proper practice and attaining harmony with the universe. The word 仙 shows you how you become an immortal: by going up into the mountains. The implication being that you cut all ties with the mundane world so you can focus exclusively on cultivation, on transforming your mind, body and spirit. And why mountains specifically? Because in Daoist thought, mountains are powerful sources of concentrated qi.

You’re not going to see this in your average trope-chasing written-to-market book.

A key Buddhist principle is nondualism. Most people are accustomed to binary thinking: yes/no, right/wrong. Buddhism challenges the practitioner to go beyond this, to understand the entirety of the situation, and to uncover an innate, intuitive wisdom that transcends rational cognition.

Zen Buddhism uses koans as a tool to accomplish this. A koan is a riddle to provoke doubt and test a student’s practice. A famous koan goes like this: Does a dog have a Buddha-nature?

The answer is: Mu (nothing).

Why is this so? All sentient beings have a Buddha-nature. But if a dog recognised its Buddha-nature, it would not be a dog, but rather a Buddha. At the same time, although it has the form of a dog, it has the potential to become a Buddha. It presently has the form of a dog because of its past karma. To become a Buddha, it must awaken to its Buddha-nature.

This koan cannot be answered by a simple yes or no statement. It is not that the dog does not have a Buddha-nature, rather at present it has not recognised that it has one. To truly grasp the implications of this is to loosen the shackles of binary thought.

When speaking specifically of Chinese culture, other key concepts form the cornerstone of Chinese metaphysics. These include yin and yang, the five elements, the eight trigrams, and the twelve animals. As with the Chinese language, each of these concepts represent not a discrete meaning, but a broad range of ideas, depending on the context. These concepts blend into each other, interpenetrating seemingly disparate fields.

The Chinese internal martial arts make many references to these ideas, expressing their qualities in movements. Traditional Chinese Medicine also uses yin and yang and the five elements. Older texts have correspondences between the eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams with various organs and body parts. These same ideas are used in Chinese astrology systems, such as bazi and qimen dunjia. Feng shui, the Chinese art of geomancy, should be combined with astrology, such as bazi and/or qimen dunjia, for optimum results. Different divination methods can be integrated to produce a holistic view of the situation. Chinese astrology determines auspicious and inauspicious dates and times for certain activities, ranging from opening new businesses to conducting funerals, in turn governing daily life, using the language of the five elements and twelve animals.

Chinese spirituality is embodied and immanent. It is expressed in everyday life, through physical movements and specific actions. The core concepts of Chinese metaphysics represent different types of energies and influences, each of them different components of a wider, integrated whole. The boundary between the sacred and the profane is blurred. By transforming one’s thoughts, by acting in harmony with the universe, one becomes what is greater than this.

Notice how this blends into the high-context nature of the Chinese language, which requires speakers and listeners to harmonise with each other to attain understanding.

Western spirituality, influenced by Christianity, is markedly different. There is a clear demarcation between profane and sacred, church and state, man and God. Rules are seen as unbreakable. What you do tends to be given greater priority over what you think or feel. There is little to no compatibility between different belief systems, and sometimes even within denominations of the same faith.

Notice also that these same properties are also reflected in Western low-context languages, where words have discrete meanings, and there is little need to consider the context to understand what is being said.

Describing religion in a setting based on Western cultures is relatively straightforward. There are places of worship, religious rituals, core ideas of the religious doctrine. But delivering a proper treatment of religion in a Chinese setting? That is something few authors have done—and even fewer have done well.

Many cultivation authors—especially Western authors—write from a limited perspective on Chinese metaphysics. Characters praying to gods and ancestors, meditating and circulating qi, imbibing various concoctions, and little else. They are writing from an external perspective about something that is internally oriented, attempting to describe a holistic way of life with a mindset that seeks to classify and segregate.

It doesn’t work.

All you get is a superficial description of profound concepts. It is the equivalent of a modern Hollywood fight scene: fast and flashy, with shaky cameras and blurred motion to hide the fact that the actors aren’t actually technically competent in fighting. Such content is produced for mindless consumption; look deeply and everything will fall apart.

It’s one of the reasons why I embarked on Saga of the Swordbreaker, and the cultivation genre in general. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the genre, none of the books I’ve read presents a grounded view of Chinese metaphysics—the very same wellspring that they drew their inspiration from. And to be honest, I can understand why.

Describing the sacred in a Western context is easier. You can describe phenomena such as bright lights, majestic cathedrals, awesome and terrible angels. There is plenty of iconography and language to draw from.

But how do you describe the moment of spiritual transcendence?

Such an experience by its very nature goes beyond mundane reality. The left hemisphere of your brain controls language and logic, yet this moment of profound realisation erases the duality of mind and body, of left brain and right brain, of language and logic and emotion and intuition. Call it Enlightenment, call it Union with the Divine, call it by however it is described in your preferred tradition, It is not something that comes from an external source. It is not something that can be learned from reading a book. It is something that must be lived.

How do you describe something which language cannot describe?

We began this essay with Newspeak, and how by narrowing the range of thought, one makes political dissent impossible. We now talk about our current English language, and how it is so narrow it is impossible to fully describe the immanent and the transcendent. Such an experience, by its very nature, bleeds into all aspects of life. How can it be described in its entirety by a language with set, discrete, inviolable boundaries between meanings and words?

Perhaps it should come to no surprise that Daoism and Buddhism stem from regions with high-context languages.

It may be difficult to communicate such experiences in English. Nonetheless, I try. Describing enlightenment may be a bit too much, but it is surely easier to discuss how metaphysics is expressed in every day life. It is in choosing auspicious dates and times, selecting careers based on astrology, various practices designed to increase self-awareness, diets customised for a person’s energetic profile and lifestyle. All this you can find in Saga of the Swordbreaker. So far as I know, I’m the only author who deliberately does this.

And if you look hard enough… maybe you can catch a glimpse of something more.

Start the saga here, and see if you can spot what lies beneath the surface.





6 responses to “Sapir-Whorf and Worldbuilding”

  1. Mary Catelli avatar
    Mary Catelli

    Actually straight has a number of English meanings even as an adjective. . . .

    1. Cheah avatar

      Sure. I was thinking of ‘straight’ as a noun, the way it is used mainly in Singapore versus elsewhere in common speech.

  2. Mary Catelli avatar
    Mary Catelli

    Christianity is an external-oriented religion. Christians go to church, participate in rituals alongside fellow believers, direct their prayers to God. After death, the faithful go to Heaven, while sinners go to Hell. The faith is expressed through what you do, where you go, whom you associate with, what you pray to.



    As in, that’s double-dyed heresy.

    The point of Christianity is to become a new creation, to be born again. What you do, where you go, whom you associate with, what you pray to, are the fruit of this. To do these things without the rebirth from divine grace is as pointless and futile as hanging peaches from the limbs of a dead peach tree. The point is to bring the peach tree back to life, and then it will produce the peaches of its very nature.

    Does this sound very external to you?

    If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
    And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
    If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
    Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated,
    it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
    it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
    It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

    1. Cheah avatar

      It seems there is a misunderstanding here.

      I was referring to the practices of Christianity. Prayer is directed to God (and saints and angels, as appropriate), who exists as a separate entity external to the believer. Attending Mass, performing rites and ceremonies, etc. are actions in the material world, external to the believer. The doctrine certainly requires transformation of the self—and the methods to get there work from the outside in.

      Contrast this to Buddhism and Daoism. There are grand rituals, ceremonies, debates, discussions, classes, and so on, all of them external to the practitioner. But the core practice is to sit by yourself and observe the inner workings of your mind and spirit. The core tenet is there no one can grant you enlightenment. They can show you the way, but you have to do the work and save yourself. Thus the work is classified as internal. Any external manifestations are a result of this internal work, or to reinforce it.

      1. Mary Catelli avatar
        Mary Catelli

        That is an incorrect understanding of Christianity. Even the sacraments bestow grace only with the intent of the person administering them.

        1. Cheah avatar

          God is the wellspring from which the sacraments come, and God is external to the person. You can achieve catharsis, gnosis and theosis with God through prayers and sacraments, but the heart of the practice is connection to a higher power who is not yourself.

          Or are you saying that grace comes not from God, but simply from within?

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