Fthe Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
fThe Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (Wikipedia Entry) ‘He gave man speech, and speech created thought, Which is the measure of the universe’ – Prometheus Unbound, Shelley The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as we know it today can be broken down into two basic principles: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. Linguistic Determinism: A Definition Linguistic Determinism refers to the idea that the language we use to some extent determines the way in which we view and think about the world around us. The concept has generally been divided into two separate groups – ‘strong’ determinism and ‘weak’ determinism.
Strong determinism is the extreme version of the theory, stating that language actually determines thought, that language and thought are identical. Although this version of the theory would attract few followers today – since it has strong evidence against it, including the possibility of translation between languages – we will see that in the past this has not always been the case. Weak determinism, however, holds that thought is merely affected by or influenced by our language, whatever that language may be.
This version of determinism is widely accepted today. Wilhelm von Humboldt: The ‘Weltanschauung’ Hypothesis. Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was the first European to combine a knowledge of various languages with a philosophical background; he equated language and thought exactly in a hypothesis we now call the ‘Weltanschauung’ (world-view) hypothesis, in fact a version of the extreme form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Humboldt maintained that language actually determined thought: Der mensch lebt mit den Gegenstanden hauptsachlich, ja… ogar ausschliesslich so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zufuhrt. ” Humboldt viewed thought as being impossible without language, language as completely determining thought. On closer inspection, we can see that this extreme hypothesis leads to a question: how, if there was no thought before language, did language arise in the first place? Humboldt answers this by adhering to the theory that language is a platonic object, comparable to a living organism which just suddenly evolved one day entirely of its own accord. Linguistic Relativity: A Definition
Linguistic relativity states that distinctions encoded in one language are unique to that language alone, and that “there is no limit to the structural diversity of languages”. If one imagines the colour spectrum, it is a continuum, each colour gradually blending into the next; there are no sharp boundaries. But we impose boundaries; we talk of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. It takes little thought to realise that these discriminations are arbitrary – and indeed in other languages the boundaries are different.
In neither Spanish, Italian nor Russian is there a word that corresponds to the English meaning of ‘blue’, and likewise in Spanish there are two words ‘esquina’ and ‘rincon’, meaning an inside and an outside corner, which necessitate the use of more than one word in English to convey the same concept. These examples show that the language we use, whichever it happens to be, divides not only the colour spectrum, but indeed our whole reality, which is a ‘kaleidoscopic flux of impressions’, into completely arbitrary compartments. The Notion of Codability
Codability has been defined by Peter Herriot as ‘the ease with which a language tag can be used to distinguish one item from another’. Something is codable if it falls within the scope of readily available terms used in whatever particular language. Degrees of codability vary, in that while one language may be capable of expressing a concept with just one word, in another may be necessary to use a whole phrase to get across the same notion; a famous example of this is the fact that in Eskimo there are many different words for snow, depending on which kind of snow one is talking about.
If we are looking for evidence to prove the weak version of linguistic determinism, then we need look no further than various experiments that have been conducted around codability. For example, monolingual speakers of an American-Indian language called Zuni – a language which does not recognise any difference between yellow and orange – had more difficulty in re-identifying objects of such colours after a period of time. With monolingual English speakers, this difficulty is absent, since we make a verbal distinction.
This only offers support for the weak version of the hypothesis, though, because it would be wrong to say that the Zuni speakers did not actually perceive a difference. So the more highly codable a concept is, the easier it is to retrieve from the unconscious. This we will come back to later when considering the relationship between a Freudian theory and linguistic determinism. The Notion of Translatability Closely related to the notion of codability is the notion of translatability.
Although different languages may have different ways of dividing up their spectra of experience into verbal forms, we find it is still quite possible to translate from one language into another. Although someone translating from one language into another may find it necessary to use a whole phrase in the target language to communicate the concept expressed in the original language with only a single word, this is achievable. In the Australian aboriginal language Pinupti, the word ‘katarta’ refers to the hole left by a goanna when it has broken the surface of its burrow after hibernation.
It takes seventeen words to translate that concept into English, but the result is fine, lacking perhaps some of the conciseness but none of the subtlety of the Pinupti word. Of course inter-language translatability again offers evidence against the strong version of determinism. The differences between the lexicons of individuals would carry great import. I know the meaning of the word ‘saltatoria’; the person sitting next to me word-processing a dissertation on paediatrics would probably not know the meaning of it.
This does not, of course, mean that I would be unable to explain to him what it meant. Of course another thing to bear in mind is the fact that words are often borrowed from one language into another, for instance the French borrowing ‘le weekend’ from English. This sort of borrowing would be impossible if language determined thought completely. And if we look just a little further, it becomes obvious that if it was true that language dictated thought, and that concepts were untranslatable, then children would be incapable of learning language at all; for how would a child learn its first word?
Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf ‘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. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication and reflection.
The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. ‘ This famous passage from the American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir (1884-1936)’s ‘The Status Of Linguistics As A Science’, written in 1929, demonstrates the dominating thought of what has come to be called by all sorts of names including the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’, the ‘Whorfian hypothesis’ and more plainly the ‘Linguistic Relativity hypothesis’.
We can see the reason for the variety of titles for the hypothesis – as well as the influence Sapir must have had on his pupil Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) – if we look at the following passage from Whorf himself, which propounds much the same viewpoint: ‘We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organised by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.
We cut nature up, organise it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organisation and classification of data which the agreement decrees. ‘ Surprisingly, though, neither Sapir or Whorf made it very clear whether they were arguing for strong or weak determinism.
At times we are “at the mercy of” whatever language we speak, while at others our linguistic habits simply “predispose certain choices of interpretation”. Whorf, originally a ‘fire prevention engineer’ by trade, spent a lot of his time studying the language of the Hopi Indians of Arizona, who make no distinction in their language between past, present and future tenses; where in English it seems natural to distinguish between ‘I see the girl’, ‘I saw the girl’ and ‘I will see the girl’, this is not an option in Hopi.
This apparently made quite an impression on Whorf, who imagined that the scientists of the day and the Hopi must see the world very differently… although the philosopher Max Black considers that ‘they may be expected to have pretty much the same concept of time that we have’ in spite of this. And Whorf himself notices, ‘The Hopi language is capable of accounting for and describing correctly all observable phenomena of the universe’. Another characteristic of the Hopi tongue is that there is just a single word – ‘masa’ytaka’ – for everything that flies, including insects, aeroplanes and pilots.
Freud ‘The question ‘How does a thing become conscious? ‘ could be put more advantageously thus: ‘How does a thing become pre-conscious? ‘. And the answer would be: ‘By coming into connexion with the verbal images that correspond to it’. This quotation from Freud’s book ‘The Ego and the Id’ helps us make what I consider to be a helpful distinction when talking about the influence of language on thought: whether we are talking about conscious or unconscious thought. I have suspected for a long time that language actually gives rise to onsciousness, to thought that is available to conscious introspection; thought of an unconscious nature takes place, I believe, from the day we are born, as the cognitive faculties exercise themselves upon the world of the child. But it is only when the child learns the meaning of words, learns to associate them with concepts, that he or she becomes ‘conscious’, in the sense of becoming aware of his/her existence as the object of other’s thoughts and judgements, and exercising upon him/herself the internalised critic Freud calls the Superego.
The child learns the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’; thought processes become their own objects for the first time. I think perhaps the answer might be that conscious thought is thought that has been given a verbal symbol to coexist alongside it. Thus thought that occurs below a conscious level, both the ‘simple’ thought of cognitive processes and the complex thought of say, repressed ideas and affects, remains unconscious until verbal correspondences are found.
More importantly, conscious thought may be thought of as unconscious thought that has been given access to consciousness through the use of verbal symbolia; thus words bring concepts from the conscious mind into the unconscious. But there is a price to be paid: what I believe to be an unlimited variety of concepts that could be brought to consciousness have but a limited number of words in which to clothe themselves.
This, of course, relates to the question of whether language determines thought. I think it fair to say in the light of Freud’s theory, which seems to me to be undoubtedly correct, that yes, language does determine conscious thought, for conscious thought is by Freud’s definition thought that has been made conscious through language; but since the majority of thought is unquestionably unconscious, we cannot say that language determines thought wholly.
Conclusion As regards linguistic determinism, it seems that most contemporary thinkers are quite content to accept the weaker version of the theory, that thought is indeed influenced by the linguistic systems available to us, but not much more; certainly not there are not many linguists today who would support Wilhelm von Humboldt’s ‘Weltanschauung’ hypothesis. It can hardly be argued, either, that there is any limit to the structural diversity of languages.
There are plenty of languages available for us to study, and each one divides the world up into compartments in different ways from other languages. To me it seems as if it would be profitable if some thought were given to the link between language and consciousness, the conscious coding of thought via verbal symbols and the way in which conscious thought is encoded in them. Bibliography Black, M. 1962. Models and Metaphors. New York: Cornell University Press. Brown, R. 1958. Words and Things. Illinois: The Free Press. Brown, Roger L. 1968.
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