linguistic relativity


  • Several terms for a single concept[edit] Among Whorf’s best-known examples of linguistic relativity are instances where a non-European 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).

  • However, a version of theory holds some “merit”, for example, “different words mean different things in different languages; not every word in every language has a one-to-one
    exact translation in a different language”[39] Critics such as Lenneberg,[40] Black, and Pinker[41] 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 are possible.

  • “[32] 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.

  • Brown and Lenneberg[edit] In 1953, Eric Lenneberg criticized 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.

  • [66] The fact that what had been believed to be random differences between color naming in different languages could be shown to follow universal patterns was seen as a powerful
    argument against linguistic relativity.

  • [31] 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.

  • [63] Colour terminology Brown and Lenneberg[edit] 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.

  • [53] Brown later developed them into the so-called “weak” and “strong” formulation: • Structural differences between language systems will, in general, be paralleled by nonlinguistic
    cognitive differences, of an unspecified sort, in the native speakers of the language.

  • [72] This, Lucy argues, made them blind to the instances in which color terms provided other information that might be considered examples of linguistic relativity.

  • As the study of the universal nature of human language and cognition came into focus in the 1960s the idea of linguistic relativity fell out of favor among linguists.

  • [25][26] Boas: It does not seem likely […] that there is any direct relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak, except in so far as the form of
    the language will be moulded by the state of the culture, but not in so far as a certain state of the culture is conditioned by the morphological traits of the language.

  • Their two tenets were (i) “the world is differently experienced and conceived in different linguistic communities” and (ii) “language causes a particular cognitive structure”.

  • [clarification needed][62] 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.

  • [57] 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.

  • [38] Studying Native American languages, he attempted to account for the ways in which grammatical systems and language-use differences affected perception.

  • Sapir: No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.

  • Lenneberg was one of the first cognitive scientists to begin development of the Universalist theory of language that was formulated by Chomsky as universal grammar, effectively
    arguing that all languages share the same underlying structure.

  • 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 […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can
    in some way be calibrated.

  • [45] These examples of polysemy served the double purpose of showing that non-European 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.

  • Members of the early 20th-century school of American anthropology headed by Franz Boas and Edward Sapir also embraced forms of the idea to a certain extent, including in a
    1928 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America,[7] but Sapir in particular, wrote more often against than in favor of anything like linguistic determinism.

  • [29] On the other hand, Sapir explicitly rejected strong linguistic determinism by stating, “It would be naïve to imagine that any analysis of experience is dependent on pattern
    expressed in language.

  • Plato may have held instead that the world consisted of eternal ideas and that language should reflect these ideas as accurately as possible.

  • Prominent in Germany from the late 1920s through into the 1960s 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.

  • [5][6] The principle of linguistic relativity and the relationship between language and thought has also received attention in varying academic fields from philosophy to psychology
    and anthropology, and it has also inspired and colored works of fiction and the invention of constructed languages.

  • 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,[74]
    but seemingly failed to address linguistic relativist argument actually posed by Whorf (i.e.

  • [28] 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.

  • His 1934 work “Thought and Language”[35] has been compared to Whorf’s and taken as mutually supportive evidence of language’s influence on cognition.

  • [20] Herder added the emotional component of the hypothesis and Humboldt then took this information and applied to various languages to expand on the hypothesis.

  • Notable proponent Frederik Kortlandt, in a 1985 paper outlining Leiden School theory, advocates for a form of linguistic relativity: “The observation that in all Yuman languages
    the word for ‘work’ is a loan from Spanish should be a major blow to any current economic theory.”

  • The most important event for the dissemination of Whorf’s ideas to a larger public was the publication in 1956 of his major writings on the topic of linguistic relativity
    in a single volume titled Language, Thought and Reality.

  • [48] Structure-centered approach[edit] Whorf’s argument about Hopi speakers’ conceptualization about time is an example of the structure-centered approach to research into
    linguistic relativity, which Lucy identified as one of three main strands of research in the field.

  • Researchers such as Lucy,[49] Saunders[67] and Levinson[68] argued that Berlin and Kay’s study does not refute linguistic relativity in color naming, because of unsupported
    assumptions in their study (such as whether all cultures in fact have a clearly defined category of “color”) and because of related data problems.

  • Following Plato, St. Augustine, for example, held the view that language was merely labels applied to already existing concepts.

  • [1] The hypothesis has long been controversial, and many different, often contradictory variations have existed throughout its history.

  • 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.

  • [47] He argued that in contrast to English and other SAE languages, Hopi does not treat the flow of time as a sequence of distinct, countable instances, like “three days”
    or “five years”, but rather as a single process and that consequently it has no nouns referring to units of time as SAE speakers understand them.

  • [24] 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.

  • Bowerman showed that certain cognitive processes did not use language to any significant extent and therefore could not be subject to linguistic relativity.

  • [4] Nevertheless, research has produced positive empirical evidence supporting a weaker version of linguistic relativity:[4][3] that a language’s structures influence and
    shape a speaker’s perceptions, without strictly limiting or obstructing them.

  • [42] Time in Hopi[edit] 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.

  • From the late 1980s, 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.

  • The distinction between a weak and a strong version of this hypothesis is also a later development; Sapir and Whorf never set up such a dichotomy, although often their writings
    and their views of this relativity principle are phrased in stronger or weaker terms.

  • Sapir also thought because language represented reality differently, it followed that the speakers of different languages would perceive reality differently.

  • Berlin/Kay found universal typological color principles that are determined by biological rather than linguistic factors.

  • But Plato has been read as arguing 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • For example, they found that even though languages have different color terminologies, they generally recognize certain hues as more focal than others.

  • For Immanuel Kant, language was but one of several tools used by humans to experience the world.

  • that the understanding of time by native Hopi speakers differed from that of speakers of European languages due to the differences in the organization and construction of
    their respective languages; Whorf never claimed that Hopi speakers lacked any concept of time).

  • In 1978, he suggested that Whorf was a “neo-Herderian champion”[55] and in 1982, 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”.

  • At least, we could not establish a complete lack of the perception of the so-called main colors as a special racial characteristic of any one of the tribes investigated for

  • [15][16] In his “Essay Concerning an Academic Question”, Hamann suggests that a people’s language affects their worldview: The lineaments of their language will thus correspond
    to the direction of their mentality.

  • “[27] Boas’ student Edward Sapir reached back to the Humboldtian idea that languages contained the key to understanding the world views of peoples.

  • He proposed that this view of time was fundamental to Hopi culture and explained certain Hopi behavioral patterns.

  • Thoughts are produced as a kind of internal dialog using the same grammar as the thinker’s native language.

  • Totally unrelated languages share in one culture; closely related languages—even a single language—belong to distinct culture spheres.

  • “[30] 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.

  • [18] This view was part of a larger picture in which the world view of an ethnic nation, their “Weltanschauung”, was seen as being faithfully reflected in the grammar of their

  • 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.

  • Research is focused on exploring the ways and extent to which language influences thought.

  • 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.

  • [34] Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky read Sapir’s work and experimentally studied the ways in which the development of concepts in children was influenced by structures
    given in language.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • This example was later criticized by Lenneberg[40] 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.

  • 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.


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