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LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY: THE SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS

I recently was given an article by Lonna, one of our regular members, entitled "Born Again in a Second Language".  It is about a writer deciding to change languages to do his/her writing and that "it can also have disastrous consequences".  In support of that statement the author, Costica Bradatan (philosopher now at Texas Tech) offered several provocative premises.

1.  "When you become a writer, you don't do so in abstract, but in relation to a certain language."

2.  "For a writer's language, far from being a mere means of expression, is above all a mode of subjective existence and a way of experiencing the world.  She needs the language not just to describe things, but to see them.  The world reveals itself in a certain manner to the Japanese writer, and in quite another to the one who writes in Finnish.  A writer's language is not just something she uses, but a constitutive part of what she is.  This is why to abandon your native tongue and to adopt another is to dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then to put yourself together again, in a different form."

(http://opinator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/born-again-in-a-second-language/?_r=0)

 

This perspective reminded me of a linguistic theory I had encountered long ago, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Over the years the hypothesis has taken on two faces.  One, called linguistic relativism, says, "the structure of a language affects the perceptions of reality of its speakers and thus influences their thought patterns and worldview."  The second, called linguistic determinism, says it is the "the theory that human languages determine the structure of the real world as perceived by human beings, rather than vice versa, and that this structure is different and incommensurable from one language to another".  The distinction is that linguistic relativism says language "influences" how one views the world while linguistic determinism says language "determines" how one views the world.

 

The hypothesis has a history that precedes Edward Sapir and his student, Benjamin Whorf.  And neither of them actually stated it as hypothesis in the sense that it has become known.  Yet, it was Sapir who began elucidating the notions in the 1920s and Whorf who later soften those notions into a more relativistic perspective.  The hypothesis peaked in the 50s and 60s, but began to fall out of favor in the mid-60s with Chomsky's notion of universal grammar and the Berlin/Kay study on color terminology.  However, the 80s saw a gradual rebirth of the hypothesis when there were new studies that indicated that linguistic relativity could be demonstrated in areas such as spatial cognition and the social use of language, plus new data regarding color perception.  Currently there is a balanced view of linguistic relativity in which it is held that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes, but that other processes are subject to universal factors.  This is the 'weak' version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

 

In his original assertion of linguistic influences on language, Whorf presented examples such the Inuit usage of multiple words for snow versus our one word.  He also pointed to the Hopi language possessing two words for drinking water: one from a container, the other from a natural body of water.  His position was that these examples indicated that direct translation between two languages is not always possible.  He also gave the example of a chemical plant that had separate storage rooms for gasoline barrels.  Employees would not smoke in the room with full barrels, but often smoked in the room with emply barrels despite the fact that empty barrels were potentially more dangerous due to the flammable vapors that were still present.  He offered that the usage of the word 'empty' somehow correlated to the notion of harmless.  (Note: this was behavior observed in the 40s and 50s, not today.)  These seem to be somewhat trivial examples and have since been challenged and refuted.  Yet, there are examples that have withstood such challenges.  One is the Hopi language does not have nouns for the citation of units of time.  For them time cannot be divided into units such as minutes and hours, but it is seen as a flow and a process: since the time of the big snow, not 10 years ago.

 

The preceding paragraph cites lexical aspects, but there are other aspects that might effect cognition.  For example, not all languages use the same word order.  English uses subject, verb, object while Welsh and Arabic use verb, subject, object.  It is said that the focus for English speakers is on the subject while the focus for the Welsh and Arabs is on the action.  There is also the effect of context.  Once called sociolinguistics, now pragmatics, this effect says that context plays a role in the use and understanding of language.  A male might use one vocabulary in the locker room and quite another at the family dinner table.  And finally George Lakoff has argued that language is used metaphorically and that different languages use different metaphors and thus will have different conceptualizations.  For example, Americans often use the 'time as a resource' metaphor while the Hopi, as above, use a 'time as action or movement' metaphor.  For Americans time is money, can be saved, etc. notions that would not occur to a Hopi who sees time as a movement towards or away from something.

 

Clearly I cannot do justice to the full range of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in this forum.  So let us confine ourselves to the two notions of linguistic determination and linguistic relativity.  It seems obvious that language has an effect on how we think, but is that effect 'determinative' or 'influential'?  Yet, curiously, if language effects how we think, then how do you account for what the infant is doing prior to acquiring a language?  If you say the infant is thinking, then isn't he/she thinking without language?  If you say language is not determinative, but is influential, then what aspects of thought does it influence?  And what is the form of that influence?  Does "it's getting closer to dinner time" have a different influence on our thinking or behavior than "I don't have time for dinner"?  And what about Bradatan's assertion in the opening: Does abandoning your native tongue and adopting another language "dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then put yourself together again"?

 

Well, as we have several members who were born in other countries and have different native tongues, I certainly hope their "dismantling" wasn't too psychologically damaging and that they have been successful in "putting themselves together" so that they can join us for discussing this controversial topic.

 

For further reading about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/supplement2.html

http://aggslanguage.wordpress.com/the-sapir-whorf-hypothesis

http://grammar.about.com/od/rs/g/SapirWhorf.htm

 

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  • Craig Y.

    As far as dis assemble and assemble to a foreign tongue. Initially a foreigner has to make the additional effort to converse in another language. But you get what you paid for. Frequently Americans take the English for granted because it is their native tongue and failed to analyze what seems obvious by custom and not taking it apart, or looking at the dictionary, thus mistake the true meaning as what the sentence is intended grammatically. Another problem is that a word can have multiple meanings and sometimes a sentence can mean several things. It is the internal picture content should be consistent though the language expressions may not be consistent.

    September 10, 2013

  • Craig Y.

    There are basically two way of expressing the world. One is pictorial, the other one is algebraic. For example the Chinese originated from pictures and the Indo-European languages are algebraic because of the grammar. There are pro and cons in these two ways of looking at the world, inherently, one is more intuitive the other one is logical. Both are important for understanding. Sometimes logic runs into a dead end you need an intuitive breakthrough. If it is pure intuitive, then it is difficult to make it precise.

    September 10, 2013

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