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ENG 312 Horowitz THE SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as we know it today can be broken down into two basic principles: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. Linguistic Determinism: 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. Linguistic Relativity: 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 color spectrum, it is a continuum, each color 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 realize 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 color 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 recognize any difference between yellow and orange - had more difficulty in re- identifying objects of such colors 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. 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 pediatrics 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? SAPIR & 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 organized by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize 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 organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” Surprisingly, though, neither Sapir nor 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.
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