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Linguistic relativity - Wikipedia

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Or, get it for Kobo Super Points! Metaphor and Metonymy, language: For hundreds of years scholars have been pondering on the interconnection of language and thought with in some points corresponding and in some points differing results. Two important protagonists in this discussion were Wilhelm von Humboldt and Leo Weisgerber , whose positions to this question I am trying to set out in this paper. As the theme is very complex, I shall at least attempt to point out some aspects, which seem especially important to me.

All the authors I consulted agree that Humboldt's theory cannot be comprehended without considering the philosophical background. Not being a student of philosophy, conceiving this part of the paper was very difficult for me. I tried to do my best by picking out those aspects of his philosophical ideas which I thought indispensable for the understanding of his doctrines. Ratings and Reviews 0 0 star ratings 0 reviews. Overall rating No ratings yet 0. Sapir's student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, came to be seen as the primary proponent as a result of his published observations of how he perceived linguistic differences to have consequences in human cognition and behavior.

Harry Hoijer , another of Sapir's students, introduced the term "Sapir—Whorf hypothesis", [4] even though the two scholars never formally advanced any such hypothesis. Whorf's principle of linguistic relativity was reformulated as a testable hypothesis by Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg who conducted experiments designed to find out whether color perception varies between speakers of languages that classified colors differently.

As the study of the universal nature of human language and cognition came into focus in the s the idea of linguistic relativity fell out of favor among linguists. A study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay demonstrated the existence of universal semantic constraints in the field of colour terminology which were widely seen to discredit the existence of linguistic relativity in this domain, although this conclusion has been disputed by relativist researchers. From the late s, a new school of linguistic relativity scholars has examined the effects of differences in linguistic categorization on cognition, finding broad support for non-deterministic versions of the hypothesis in experimental contexts.

Currently, a balanced view of linguistic relativity is espoused by most linguists holding that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes in non-trivial ways, but that other processes are better seen as arising from connectionist factors.


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Research is focused on exploring the ways and extent to which language influences thought. The strongest form of the theory is linguistic determinism, which holds that language entirely determines the range of cognitive processes. The hypothesis of linguistic determinism is now generally agreed to be false. This is the weaker form, proposing that language provides constraints in some areas of cognition, but that it is by no means determinative. Research on weaker forms has produced positive empirical evidence for a relationship. The idea that language and thought are intertwined is ancient.

Plato argued against sophist thinkers such as Gorgias of Leontini , who held that the physical world cannot be experienced except through language; this made the question of truth dependent on aesthetic preferences or functional consequences. Plato held instead that the world consisted of eternal ideas and that language should reflect these ideas as accurately as possible. Augustine , for example, held the view that language was merely labels applied to already existing concepts. This view remained prevalent throughout the Middle Ages.

For Immanuel Kant , language was but one of several tools used by humans to experience the world. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the idea of the existence of different national characters, or " Volksgeister ", of different ethnic groups was the moving force behind the German romantics school and the beginning ideologies of ethnic nationalism.

As early as , he alludes to something along the lines of linguistic relativity in commenting on a passage in the table of nations in the book of Genesis:. This is because there is a correspondence of the language with the intellectual part of man, or with his thought, like that of an effect with its cause. There is a common genius prevailing among those who are subject to one king, and who consequently are under one constitutional law.

Germany is divided into more governments than the neighboring kingdoms However, a common genius prevails everywhere among people speaking the same language. Johann Georg Hamann is often suggested to be the first among the actual German Romantics to speak of the concept of "the genius of a language. The lineaments of their language will thus correspond to the direction of their mentality.

In , Wilhelm von Humboldt connected the study of language to the national romanticist program by proposing the view that language is the fabric of thought. Thoughts are produced as a kind of internal dialog using the same grammar as the thinker's native language. Von Humboldt argued that languages with an inflectional morphological type , such as German, English and the other Indo-European languages , were the most perfect languages and that accordingly this explained the dominance of their speakers over the speakers of less perfect languages.

Wilhelm von Humboldt declared in The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world. The idea that some languages are superior to others and that lesser languages maintained their speakers in intellectual poverty was widespread in the early 20th century. American linguist William Dwight Whitney , for example, actively strove to eradicate Native American languages , arguing that their speakers were savages and would be better off learning English and adopting a "civilized" way of life.

Boas stressed the equal worth of all cultures and languages, that there was no such thing as a primitive language and that all languages were capable of expressing the same content, albeit by widely differing means. Boas saw language as an inseparable part of culture and he was among the first to require of ethnographers to learn the native language of the culture under study and to document verbal culture such as myths and legends in the original language.

It does not seem likely [ Boas' student Edward Sapir reached back to the Humboldtian idea that languages contained the key to understanding the world views of peoples. He espoused the viewpoint that because of the differences in the grammatical systems of languages no two languages were similar enough to allow for perfect cross-translation. Sapir also thought because language represented reality differently, it followed that the speakers of different languages would perceive reality differently.

No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. Sapir was explicit that the connections between language and culture were neither thoroughgoing nor particularly deep, if they existed at all:.

It is easy to show that language and culture are not intrinsically associated. Totally unrelated languages share in one culture; closely related languages—even a single language—belong to distinct culture spheres. There are many excellent examples in Aboriginal America. The Athabaskan languages form as clearly unified, as structurally specialized, a group as any that I know of.

The speakers of these languages belong to four distinct culture areas The cultural adaptability of the Athabaskan-speaking peoples is in the strangest contrast to the inaccessibility to foreign influences of the languages themselves. Sapir offered similar observations about speakers of so-called "world" or "modern" languages , noting, "possession of a common language is still and will continue to be a smoother of the way to a mutual understanding between England and America, but it is very clear that other factors, some of them rapidly cumulative, are working powerfully to counteract this leveling influence.

Linguistic relativity

A common language cannot indefinitely set the seal on a common culture when the geographical, physical, and economics determinants of the culture are no longer the same throughout the area. While Sapir never made a point of studying directly how languages affected thought, some notion of probably "weak" linguistic relativity underlay his basic understanding of language, and would be taken up by Whorf. Drawing on influences such as Humboldt and Friedrich Nietzsche , some European thinkers developed ideas similar to those of Sapir and Whorf, generally working in isolation from each other.

Prominent in Germany from the late s through into the s were the strongly relativist theories of Leo Weisgerber and his key concept of a 'linguistic inter-world', mediating between external reality and the forms of a given language, in ways peculiar to that language. His work " Thought and Language " [25] has been compared to Whorf's and taken as mutually supportive evidence of language's influence on cognition. More than any linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf has become associated with what he called the "linguistic relativity principle".

Whorf also examined how a scientific account of the world differed from a religious account, which led him to study the original languages of religious scripture and to write several anti- evolutionist pamphlets. Critics such as Lenneberg, Black and Pinker attribute to Whorf a strong linguistic determinism, while Lucy , Silverstein and Levinson point to Whorf's explicit rejections of determinism, and where he contends that translation and commensuration is possible. Although Whorf lacked an advanced degree in linguistics, his reputation reflects his acquired competence.

His peers at Yale University considered the 'amateur' Whorf to be the best man available to take over Sapir's graduate seminar in Native American linguistics while Sapir was on sabbatical in — Indeed, Lucy wrote, "despite his 'amateur' status, Whorf's work in linguistics was and still is recognized as being of superb professional quality by linguists".

Detractors such as Lenneberg, Chomsky and Pinker criticized him for insufficient clarity in his description of how language influences thought, and for not proving his conjectures. Most of his arguments were in the form of anecdotes and speculations that served as attempts to show how 'exotic' grammatical traits were connected to what were apparently equally exotic worlds of thought.

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. 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 kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds.


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  • 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 [ Among Whorf's best-known examples of linguistic relativity are instances where an indigenous language has several terms for a concept that is only described with one word in European languages Whorf used the acronym SAE " Standard Average European " to allude to the rather similar grammatical structures of the well-studied European languages in contrast to the greater diversity of less-studied languages.

    One of Whorf's examples was the supposedly large number of words for 'snow' in the Inuit language , an example which later was contested as a misrepresentation. Another is the Hopi language 's words for water, one indicating drinking water in a container and another indicating a natural body of water. These examples of polysemy served the double purpose of showing that indigenous languages sometimes made more fine grained semantic distinctions than European languages and that direct translation between two languages, even of seemingly basic concepts such as snow or water, is not always possible.

    Another example is from Whorf's experience as a chemical engineer working for an insurance company as a fire inspector. He further noticed that while no employees smoked cigarettes in the room for full barrels, no-one minded smoking in the room with empty barrels, although this was potentially much more dangerous because of the highly flammable vapors still in the barrels.

    Linguistic relativity - Wikipedia audio article

    He concluded that the use of the word empty in connection to the barrels had led the workers to unconsciously regard them as harmless, although consciously they were probably aware of the risk of explosion. This example was later criticized by Lenneberg [34] as not actually demonstrating causality between the use of the word empty and the action of smoking, but instead was an example of circular reasoning.

    Pinker in The Language Instinct ridiculed this example, claiming that this was a failing of human insight rather than language. Whorf's most elaborate argument for linguistic relativity regarded what he believed to be a fundamental difference in the understanding of time as a conceptual category among the Hopi. He proposed that this view of time was fundamental to Hopi culture and explained certain Hopi behavioral patterns.

    Malotki later claimed that he had found no evidence of Whorf's claims in 's era speakers, nor in historical documents dating back to the arrival of Europeans. Malotki used evidence from archaeological data, calendars, historical documents, modern speech and concluded that there was no evidence that Hopi conceptualize time in the way Whorf suggested. Universalist scholars such as Pinker often see Malotki's study as a final refutation of Whorf's claim about Hopi, whereas relativist scholars such as Lucy and Penny Lee criticized Malotki's study for mischaracterizing Whorf's claims and for forcing Hopi grammar into a model of analysis that doesn't fit the data.

    Whorf died in at age 44, leaving multiple unpublished papers. His line of thought was continued by linguists and anthropologists such as Hoijer and Lee who both continued investigations into the effect of language on habitual thought, and Trager , who prepared a number of Whorf's papers for posthumous publishing.

    The most important event for the dissemination of Whorf's ideas to a larger public was the publication in of his major writings on the topic of linguistic relativity in a single volume titled Language, Thought and Reality. In , Eric Lenneberg criticised Whorf's examples from an objectivist view of language holding that languages are principally meant to represent events in the real world and that even though languages express these ideas in various ways, the meanings of such expressions and therefore the thoughts of the speaker are equivalent.

    He argued that Whorf's English descriptions of a Hopi speaker's view of time were in fact translations of the Hopi concept into English, therefore disproving linguistic relativity. However Whorf was concerned with how the habitual use of language influences habitual behavior, rather than translatability. Whorf's point was that while English speakers may be able to understand how a Hopi speaker thinks, they do not think in that way. Lenneberg's main criticism of Whorf's works was that he never showed the connection between a linguistic phenomenon and a mental phenomenon.

    With Brown, Lenneberg proposed that proving such a connection required directly matching linguistic phenomena with behavior. They assessed linguistic relativity experimentally and published their findings in Since neither Sapir nor Whorf had ever stated a formal hypothesis, Brown and Lenneberg formulated their own. Their two tenets were i "the world is differently experienced and conceived in different linguistic communities" and ii "language causes a particular cognitive structure".

    Brown's formulations became widely known and were retrospectively attributed to Whorf and Sapir although the second formulation, verging on linguistic determinism, was never advanced by either of them. Since Brown and Lenneberg believed that the objective reality denoted by language was the same for speakers of all languages, they decided to test how different languages codified the same message differently and whether differences in codification could be proven to affect behavior.

    They designed experiments involving the codification of colors.

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    In their first experiment, they investigated whether it was easier for speakers of English to remember color shades for which they had a specific name than to remember colors that were not as easily definable by words. This allowed them to compare the linguistic categorization directly to a non-linguistic task. In a later experiment, speakers of two languages that categorize colors differently English and Zuni were asked to recognize colors.

    In this way, it could be determined whether the differing color categories of the two speakers would determine their ability to recognize nuances within color categories. Lenneberg was also one of the first cognitive scientists to begin development of the Universalist theory of language that was formulated by Chomsky in the form of Universal Grammar , effectively arguing that all languages share the same underlying structure. The Chomskyan school also holds the belief that linguistic structures are largely innate and that what are perceived as differences between specific languages are surface phenomena that do not affect the brain's universal cognitive processes.

    This theory became the dominant paradigm in American linguistics from the s through the s, while linguistic relativity became the object of ridicule. Examples of universalist influence in the s are the studies by Berlin and Kay who continued Lenneberg's color research. They studied color terminology formation and showed clear universal trends in color naming. For example, they found that even though languages have different color terminologies, they generally recognize certain hues as more focal than others.

    They showed that in languages with few color terms, it is predictable from the number of terms which hues are chosen as focal colors, for example, languages with only three color terms always have the focal colors black, white and red. Other universalist researchers dedicated themselves to dispelling other aspects of linguistic relativity, often attacking Whorf's specific points and examples. For example, Malotki's monumental study of time expressions in Hopi presented many examples that challenged Whorf's "timeless" interpretation of Hopi language and culture. Today many followers of the universalist school of thought still oppose linguistic relativity.

    For example, Pinker argues in The Language Instinct that thought is independent of language, that language is itself meaningless in any fundamental way to human thought, and that human beings do not even think in "natural" language, i. Pinker and other universalists have been accused by relativists of misrepresenting Whorf's views and arguing against strawmen. Joshua Fishman argued that Whorf's true position was largely overlooked. In , he suggested that Whorf was a "neo- Herderian champion" [47] and in , he proposed "Whorfianism of the third kind" in an attempt to refocus linguists' attention on what he claimed was Whorf's real interest, namely the intrinsic value of "little peoples" and "little languages".

    But to restrict thinking to the patterns merely of English […] is to lose a power of thought which, once lost, can never be regained. It is the 'plainest' English which contains the greatest number of unconscious assumptions about nature. Where Brown's weak version of the linguistic relativity hypothesis proposes that language influences thought and the strong version that language determines thought, Fishman's 'Whorfianism of the third kind' proposes that language is a key to culture.

    In the late s and early s, advances in cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics renewed interest in the Sapir—Whorf hypothesis. He argued that language is often used metaphorically and that languages use different cultural metaphors that reveal something about how speakers of that language think. For example, English employs conceptual metaphors likening time with money, so that time can be saved and spent and invested, whereas other languages do not talk about time in that way. Other such metaphors are common to many languages because they are based on general human experience, for example, metaphors likening up with good and bad with down.

    Lakoff also argued that metaphor plays an important part in political debates such as the "right to life" or the "right to choose"; or "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers". In his book Women, Fire and Dangerous things: He concluded that the debate had been confused. He described four parameters on which researchers differed in their opinions about what constitutes linguistic relativity:. Lakoff concluded that many of Whorf's critics had criticized him using novel definitions of linguistic relativity, rendering their criticisms moot. The publication of the anthology Rethinking Linguistic Relativity edited by Gumperz and Levinson began a new period of linguistic relativity studies that focused on cognitive and social aspects.

    The book included studies on the linguistic relativity and universalist traditions. Levinson documented significant linguistic relativity effects in the linguistic conceptualization of spatial categories between languages. Separate studies by Bowerman and Slobin treated the role of language in cognitive processes. Bowerman showed that certain cognitive processes did not use language to any significant extent and therefore could not be subject to linguistic relativity.

    Slobin described another kind of cognitive process that he named "thinking for speaking" — the kind of process in which perceptional data and other kinds of prelinguistic cognition are translated into linguistic terms for communication. These, Slobin argues, are the kinds of cognitive process that are at the root of linguistic relativity. Researchers such as Boroditsky , Lucy and Levinson believe that language influences thought in more limited ways than the broadest early claims.

    Researchers examine the interface between thought or cognition , language and culture and describe the relevant influences.

    They use experimental data to back up their conclusions. Psycholinguistic studies explored motion perception, emotion perception, object representation and memory. Recent work with bilingual speakers attempts to distinguish the effects of language from those of culture on bilingual cognition including perceptions of time, space, motion, colors and emotion. Lucy identified three main strands of research into linguistic relativity. The "structure-centered" approach starts with a language's structural peculiarity and examines its possible ramifications for thought and behavior. The defining example is Whorf's observation of discrepancies between the grammar of time expressions in Hopi and English.

    More recent research in this vein is Lucy's research describing how usage of the categories of grammatical number and of numeral classifiers in the Mayan language Yucatec result in Mayan speakers classifying objects according to material rather than to shape as preferred by English speakers.