How Valid Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

9 September 2016

The debate on whether ‘language is the dress of thought’ originates in ancient Greece when Aristotle discussed the possibility that the thinking pattern influences to a certain degree the evolution of language (He, 2011: 1). The concept that language is ‘merely a reflection of thought and the objective world’ (He, 2011: 1) was re-examined several times throughout history; the conclusions drawn give us a new interpretation of language determinism.

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This essay will examine the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of language relativity and it will attempt to define the concept as well as to establish whether it was a turning point for reconsidering the correlation between culture, thought and language. While taking into consideration the contribution of Sapir and Whorf in highlighting the significance of the language in the process of understanding one’s ‘kaleidoscopic diversity of different worldviews ’(He, 2011: 1), the essay will also question the validity of the theory examining different tests and experiments conducted in this field. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis conceptualizes the idea that one’s thoughts and behaviour are dictated by his language. This theory can be broken down into two associated principles (The Linguist List, n. y) The first principle, linguistic determinism, sustains that way we see and think about the world is influenced by our language (“‘Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society) (Sapir cited in Chandler, 1994: 1).

This theory can be divided into two contrasting ideas: strong determinism and “weak’ determinism. According to the first, language and thought are identical. Moreover, the language’s structure is said to influence or determine the individual’s sense of existence and to provide a framework for acquiring knowledge throughout life. This theory is nowadays generally rejected because it is hard to prove, and it suggests that bilingualism and translation are not possible.

Many linguists have, however, accepted the ”weaker” version of determinism, which says that language merely affects or influences the way we think but does not determine the way we act (University Of Virginia, 2006: 1 – 2) . Additionally, this is thought to be a ‘two-way process’; the type of language one uses is also affected by one’s “world view”. The social context of the language is also emphasised (example: the pressure of using a certain kind of language in specific contexts) (Chandler, 1994: 3).

The second principle, linguistic relativity, shapes the idea that people brought up in different cultures, therefore speaking different languages, will not think or see the world in a similar way (“‘We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages(… )We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language”. ) (Whorf, 1940 cited in Chandler, 1994:1).

Various languages carve up and sketch the world in various ways. This not only underlies that the language one speaks will affect the way in which he thinks about the world but that it will also influence one’s way of reasoning in different circumstances (University Of Virginia, 2006: 2). Challenges: Having explained the basic principles behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it is, however, important to note it’s limitations as well. To what extent the Sapir-Whorf theory can be used has been a high subject of debate for several decades. (Thompson, 1997: 85-86)

One point often highlighted is that, whilst the hypothesis indicates certain correlations between one’s language and one’s culture, it does not prove clearly that the individual’s view of the world is somehow changed (Thompson, 1997: 86). If people of Zimbabwe who speak Shona have only three main terms for naming colours, that does not mean that the way they see the world is different from a French speaker’s. They see the world in a similar way; their eyes are not biologically different. It simply means that for them is more difficult to describe colours.

“Their ‘code’ is not so handy; the colours’ codability is lower” (Thompson, 1997: 86). Specialists argue that all humans see the same reality; the only distinction is in the way the language is constructed: different words and phrases to express that reality (Thompson, 1997: 87). The Inuit population might have more words for snow than Americans do, and Americans might have more terms for cars that Eskimos; however, that does not signify that one or another are unable to understand the things described with a different vocabulary (He, 2011: 3).

Furthermore, given the current high profile debate of this subject, other limitations can be added as well. For example, it also suggests that people speaking the same language share the same ‘believes and social practices’ and they all look at and interpret the world in the same way (He, 2011: 3). In fact, even if they share the same language, members of the same community might develop their own understanding of life and see the world in a ‘unique light’. This is mostly determined by various other factors, social or psychological experiences.

Moreover, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does not give a concrete explanation of the fact that we sometimes think about things that are hard to express in our native tongue but easier in others. That does not stop us from thinking about them or understanding them (He, 2011: 3-4). A third possible critique of extreme Whorfianism is the notion of translatability and the possibility of learning additional languages, both deemed to be impossible if we are to believe the language’s predetermining role on cognition and thought (HE, 2011: 3).

If we agree that one’s language determines one’s way of thinking, then it could also be said that some ideas and concepts would only make sense in the language that they were first ‘born’ in. As an example, the poet Pablo Neruda stated that when his poems are translated into other languages, the words do not correspond in terms of “vocalization, or in the placement, or the colour, or the weight” (Neruda cited in Parr-Davies, 2001: 2). Nevertheless, he admitted that the general meaning of what he was trying to transmit was well captured (Parr-Davies, 2001: 3). Evidence:

It can be seen from the above analysis that many linguists disagreed to a certain extent with the Whorfianism view, and continued to deny some of its principles. However, evidence to support or to deny the existence of a connection between language and behavioural patterns was proved hard to find; one cannot ask random people whether their language determines their conduct and thinking; it would be fruitless, for the language is so deeply ‘stamped’ into their subconscious that it would be impossible for them to think of another way of understanding the world (Thompson, 1997: 84).

While such failures must not be discounted, there are some theories and experiments that tend to confirm to a certain extent the validity of moderate Whorfism. Vocabulary differences have behavioural effects. One example supporting this theory is the fact that the way in which the grammatical structure is constructed can have a certain impact over one’s behaviour. The structure of Navajo verb forms suggests the shape and the flexibility of certain objects (University Of Colorado, 2007: 2). Carroll and Casagrande conducted an experiment to see how Navajo children group certain objects.

They were given a blue stick and were asked which one goes better with it: a yellow stick or a blue rope? English children chose the blue rope (colour) while, unsurprisingly, the Navajo children chose the yellow stick (shape) (University Of Colorado, 2007: 3). Further proof for linguistic relativity can be found in the experiment conducted by Carmichael, Hogan & Waller (cited in Parr-Davies, 2001: 4). The subject was shown different shapes with a description underneath. To exemplify, one would see this image: This was either given the label ‘the letter C’ either ‘the crescent moon’.

The subject was then asked to redraw from memory what he had seen; invariably, the drawing was changed to look more similar to the label given, therefore proving that language can affect thought (Parr-Davies, 2001: 4). Conclusion: Whilst this does perhaps partially prove the theory, there is evidence for the contrary. The fact that there are up to 7,000 different languages spoken around the globe (BBC, 2007), each with its own culture, is to a certain extent a supporting evidence for Whorf’s theory (Thompson, 1997: 86).

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