The most interesting question in linguistic is whether and how language affects the way we remember things and the way we perceive the world and this idea was first introduced by the influential linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (Harley, 2008). Statements, attempting to illustrate that language is the medium by which one views the world, culture, reality and thought have aroused an intense desire in not only scholars but also for non-scholars to validate of disprove this hypothesis.
Most researchers today currently argue one of the following three positions in relation to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or Linguistic Relativity: language heavily influences thought, language does not influence thought or language partially influences thought. This essay will intend to focus on those three positions and argue that the language we speak partly influence the way we perceive the world, but language does not regulate realism. Benjamin Whorf, like Sapir studied Native American languages.
Whorf sites several examples form the Native American language, Hopi, to support his hypothesis that thought is strongly based on language. According to Whorf the Hopi language does not contain any words, grammatical constructions or expressions that refer to the English concept of “time”. Whorf goes on to explain that it is possible in the Hopi language to express the world or reality in ways other than what many languages refer to as “time”. The Hopi view of reality is specific to the language and can only be best expressed if one is familiar with the language (Carroll, 1956, p. 57).
In this example where Whorf feels language strongly influences thought, he is often criticized with circularity because he infers cognitive differences between two speakers from an examination of their respective languages. His proof of cognitive differences is only based on reiteration of the linguistic differences (Harre, 1990, p. 5). A common argument for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the perception of colour across languages. According to the hypothesis, if one language categorizes colour differently than another language, then the different groups should perceive it differently also.
In a study done in the 1970’s a group of researchers studied the difference in perception of colour in English compared with a small tribe from Papua New Guinea called Berinmo. The Berinmo were given a sample of 160 different colours and asked to categorize them. The Berinmo not only had less categories, they did not differentiate between the English colours blue and green, however, they did draw a category between colours in their language “nol” and “wor” which in English would both be perceived in the category of yellow.
The researchers found that the Berinmo speakers were better at matching colours across their “nol”, “wor” categories than across the English blue and green categories and English speakers were better at matching colours across blue and green than across the Berinmo “nol” and “wor” (Sawyer, 1999). According to the researchers by showing that the colour perception of the two language groups is dependent on the categorization in the language, the results support the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
There are three main points that researchers use to dispute the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: translatability, differences between linguistic and non-linguistic events and universals. Translatability is a common argument scholars use against the hypothesis, for although language may differ considerably in the way they express certain details, it is still quite possible to translate those details from one language to another (Harley, 2008). The argument made by Eric Lenneberg against the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is that linguistic and non-linguistic events must be separately observed and described before they can be correlated (Carroll, 1956, p.
28). He argues that there is no way to define language as influencing thought when there is no distinction between these two events and that the evidence which supports language as influencing thought is based purely on linguistic differences. The third argument that gives evidence against language influencing thought is the concept of universals. According to Harley (2008), in examining this thought in relation to linguistic relativity all cultures would be related and have similar realities which is in deep contrast with Whorf’s ideas that all cultures see the world differently because of their language.
The writings of Sapir and Whorf brought about a huge change in the way scholars view language and thought. Researchers scurried to find evidence that would give the hypothesis validity. Although the research is easy to formulate, the problem lies in finding a set of variables that accurately test the hypothesis. Most researchers up to this time have found it hard to conclude that language determines thought, however through examples from Whorf’s studies in Hopi and other observations from researchers it is valid to suggest that language does partially determine thought.
In determining linguistic relativity the question is not whether a language affects ones thoughts but to what degree (Wierzbicka, 1992, p. 7). Many examples are given to support a weak interpretation of linguistic relativity. One experiment done by Linda Rogers gives evidence to support a weak interpretation. Rogers read a story to a group of bilingual children while recording their brain-wave patterns. She first read the story in English while observing that the children’s brains were active in the left hemisphere and then read the story in Navaho and observed their brain activity in the right hemisphere.
This according to Rogers gave evidence to the fact that English as a noun-cantered language was processed in the left side of the brain and the Navaho as a verb-cantered language was processed in the right side of the brain. This gave evidence to the fact that although the same story was told to the same children they processed the story differently according to which language it was told in (Gill, 1997, p. 140). Another example is a study contrasting Japanese and English passive constructions done by Agnes Niyekawa-Howard in 1968.
The study explains that Japanese has two types of passive constructions in which when one is combined with the other the meaning changes so that the subject of the sentence was caused to take the action that is found in the verb. In translating stories from Japanese to English this construction was not seen, however, in the translation from English to Japanese the Japanese translators included this construction. Similarly when asked to interpret cartoons that dealt with interpersonal conflict, the Japanese were found to attribute responsibility for the negative outcome to others more than did the English.
The study’s purpose was to show that although not consciously seen by native Japanese, this construction of grammar contributes to a perceptual habit or cultural outlook in the Japanese culture (Salzmann, 1993, p. 163). In conclusion, language and society are intertwined that it is impossible to understand one without the other. There is no human society that does not depend on, is not shaped by, and does not itself shape language (Chaika, 1989, p. 2). This statement best defines the relationship between language, thought and reality for language not only shapes the way reality is perceived but reality can also shape language.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has changed the way many people look at language. It has influenced many scholars and opened up large areas of study. While many like Sapir and Whorf support the notion that language strongly influences thought and others argue that language does not influence thought, the evidence from research indicates that language does influence thought and perception of reality but language does not govern thought or reality. (1237 words)