Sapir-whorf thesis states

Inuit words for snow? All Whorf. The time-less people were the Hopi, a Native American tribe who live in north-eastern Arizona. Whorf claimed that they didn't have any words for time — no direct translation for the noun time itself, no grammatical constructions indicating the past or future — and therefore could not conceive of it. They experienced reality in a fundamentally different way. The idea fascinated people: Whorf's work became popular "knowledge" but his credibility waned from the 60s onward.

By the mids, linguist Ekkehart Milotki had published two enormous books in two languages discrediting the "time-less Hopi" idea. Now, pronouncements like those made by Whorf and my airport companions make me instantly suspicious. If Whorf's theory sounds a little odd to you, a little politically incorrect, perhaps you're an anxious liberal like me; if you subscribe to it wholesale sometimes called the "strong" version of the hypothesis , you are consigning people from different speaking communities to totally different inner lives.

Which sounds, well, racist. The idea that people who speak some particular language are incapable of certain kinds of thought is instinctively distasteful.

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From the very first, scientific testing of Whorf's hypothesis seemed to prove him wrong. His idea that people cannot conceive of realities for which they have no words just doesn't make sense: how would we ever learn anything if that were true? We aren't born with words for everything that we understand. Whorf was of a different time: his research came out of older traditions of thinking about language that have lost cultural traction.

The Influence of Language on Thought Study Benjamin Whorf Hypothesis and Edward Sapir

In the 18th and 19th centuries, writers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt believed that a culture's language encapsulated its identity, to the extent that different languages represented totally distinct worldviews. The late 19th century was the heyday for the idea that white culture was objectively the best, so you can see how this kind of theory really caught on. However, if you see Whorf as both coming out of but also very different from that kind of thought, he turns out to be a real progressive.

The principle holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which. This chapter focuses on the interreationship between language and culture. The author first introduces the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which claims that language has strong influence on culture.

He then discusses the study of kinship terms, folk taxonomies, color terms, prototypes, and taboo and euphrmisms used in different cultures to furthur support the hypothesis. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis illustrates the stucture of one language strongly affect the world-view of its speakers.

Wardhaugh first quotes the explaination from Sapir and Whorf to demonstrates a clear outline of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Sapir believes …show more content…. Language is a mirror, which is reflecting the collection of thoughts of one culture. Terms with marked features of one language is hard to deliver the same meaning in another language. Wardhaugh furthur supports the hypoesis with the relationship between human and the external world and syntactic evidence.

Also, he disagrees with the anti- Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis by opposing the aborted attempts to separate language and culture from each other. Wardhaugh explains the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in details and demonstrates a clear observation of the interreationship of language and culture. However, he does not mention the influence of the variety of one language to their speakers. For instance, both Americans and Filipinos speak English, but these two countries share distinctive cultures.

Therefore, for people who are bilingual or mutilingual such as Filipinos , their perception of culture might be interchangeable based on the language they choose to use. Lexicon Different languages have different lexicons vocabularies , but the important point here is that the lexicons of different languages may classify things in different ways.

For example, the color lexicons of some languages segment the color spectrum at different places. Semantics Different languages have different semantic features over and above differences in lexical semantics. Metaphor Different languages employ different metaphors or employ them in different ways.

Pragmatics It is increasingly clear that context plays a vital role in the use and understanding of language, and it is possible that differences in the way speakers of different languages use their languages in concrete settings affects their mental life. For the most part discussions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis have focused on grammar and lexicon as independent variables. Thus, many of Whorf's claims, e. Subsequence research by Ekkehart Malotki e. Language might influence many different aspects of thought.

Most empirical work has focused, appropriately enough, on those aspects that are easiest to assess without relying on language. This is important, since we otherwise risk finding influences of one aspect of language on some related aspect of language , rather than on some aspect of thought. Commonly studied cognitive variables include perceptual discrimination, availability in memory, and classification. In light of the vast literature on linguistic relativity hypotheses, one would expect that a good deal of careful experimental work had been done on the topic.

It hasn't. Often the only evidence cited in favor of such hypotheses is to point to a difference between two languages and assert that it adds up to a difference in modes of thought. But this simply assumes what needs to be shown, namely that such linguistic differences give rise to cognitive differences.

On the other hand, refutations of the hypothesis often target implausibly extreme versions of it or proceed as though refutations of it in one domain e. A linguistic relativity hypothesis says that some particular aspect of language influences some particular aspect of cognition. Many different aspects of language could, for all we know, influence many different aspects of cognition. This means that a study showing that some particular aspect of language e. It does not even tell us whether the single aspect of language we focused on affects any aspects of thought besides the one we studied, or whether other aspects of language influence the single aspect of thought we examined.

The point here is not merely a theoretical one. When the mind is seen as all of a piece, whether it's the result of stepping through Piaget's universal stages of development, the output of universal learning mechanisms, or the operation of a general-purpose computer, confirming or disconfirming the hypothesis in one area e. But there is increasing evidence that the mind is, to at least some degree, modular, with different cognitive modules doing domain specific work e.

If this is right, there is less reason to expect that findings about the influence of language on one aspect of cognition will generalize to other aspects.

Only a handful of versions of the claim that linguistic feature X influences cognitive feature Y in way Z have ever been tested. Some can doubtless be ruled out on the basis of common sense knowledge or previous investigation.


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But many remain that have yet to be studied. Moreover, those that have been studied often have not been studied with the care they deserve. A few have, though, and we will now turn to them. Much of the most rigorous investigation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis involves color language and color cognition.

In the s and 60s, this was an area where linguistic relativity seemed quite plausible. On the one hand, there is nothing in the physics of light e. On the one hand, it was well known that different languages had color terms that segmented the color spectrum at different places. So since nothing in the physics of color could determine how humans thought about color, it seemed natural to hypothesis that color cognition followed the grooves laid down by color language. Color was also an auspicious object of study, because investigators could use Munsell color chips a widely used, standardized set of chips of different colors or similar stimulus materials with subjects in quite different locations, thus assuring that whatever differences they found in their dependent variables really did involve the same thing, color as anchored in the chips , rather than something more nebulous.

Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's work on basic color terms did much to raise the quality of empirical work on the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

And together with much subsequent work it strongly suggests that the strongest, across-the-board versions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis are false when it comes to color language and color cognition. We now know that colors may be a rather special case, however, for although there is nothing in the physics of color that suggests particular segmentations of the spectrum, the opponent-process theory of color vision, now well confirmed, tells us that there are neurophysiological facts about human beings that influence many of the ways in which we perceive colors.

We don't know of anything comparable innate mechanisms that would channel thought about social traits or biological classification of diseases in similarly deep grooves. There may well be cross-cultural similarities in the ways human beings think about these things, but we can't conclude this from the work on color. The linguist Noam Chomsky has argued for almost half a century that human beings could only learn natural languages if they had a good deal of innate linguistic equipment to guide their way. He has characterized this equipment in different ways over the years, but the abiding theme is that without it children could never get from the sparse set of utterances they hear to the rich linguistic ability they achieve.


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In just a few years all normal children acquire the language that is spoken by their family and others around them. They acquire a very complex and virtually unbounded ability to distinguish sentences from non-sentences and to understand and utter a virtually unlimited number of sentences they have never thought of before. The child acquires this ability on the basis of the utterances she hears and the feedback rarely in the form of corrections she receives.

The problem is that the child's data here are very unsystematic and sparse compared to the systematic and nearly unbounded linguistic competence the child quickly acquires. Hence, the argument continues, the child needs help to get from this impoverished input to the rich output the acquisition of a grammar of a complex natural language , and this help can only be provided by something innate that constrains and guides the child in her construction of the grammar.

The point is quite general: if the input, or data stream, is exiguous then barring incredible luck it is only possible for someone to arrive at the right theory about the data if they have some built-in inductive biases, some predispositions to form one kind of theory rather than another.

Arrival: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

And since any child can learn any human language, the innate endowment must put constraints on which of the countless logically possible languages are humanly possible. If the features of human languages are limited by such innate, language-acquisition mechanisms, there is less scope for the large differences among languages that the more extreme linguistic relativists have imagined. But might linguistic universals leave room for less extreme versions of linguistic relativism that are still interesting? That depends on what linguistic devices there are and on their relationships to other cognitive mechanisms.

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From the perspective of nativist accounts of language, many of the questions about linguistic relativity boil down to questions about the informational encapsulation of mental modules. To say that a module is encapsulated means that other parts of the mind cannot influence its inner workings though they can supply it with inputs and use its outputs. What are the implications of this for the linguistic relativist's claim that a person's language can exert a dramatic influence on his perception and thought?

The answer may be different for perception, on the one hand, and the higher mental processes, on the other. For example Jerry Fodor argues that there is a module or modules for visual perception and that information from other parts of the mind cannot influence it in the way that many psychologists have supposed. I know the lengths are the same, but my visual module or models does not.