EFL 503 by wpr1947


									EFL 503                           Southern New Hampshire University                    October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                      MSTEFL Program                            Chad Detjen

                                  Linguistic Relativity Theory

           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 or reflection (Thought and Language, nd).

Edward Sapir, a linguistic anthropologist out of Yale University, expressed this idea in

the 1920’s. Along with his student and colleague Benjamin Lee Whorf, the two became

famous for their idea that people’s language determines their thoughts. Their ideas soon

became known as the Linguistic Relativity Theory, also known as the Sapir-Whorf

Hypothesis. The theory states that the language we use to some extent determines the

way in which we think and view the world around us (The Linguistic Relativity

Hypothesis, nd). Since this theory was proposed, it has caused controversy and has

created research in a variety of disciplines including linguistics, psychology, philosophy,

anthropology and education (The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, nd). All fields have been

looking for the answer to one question: does language determine our thoughts?

History of the Sapir-Whorf Hypotheis

           Linguistic relativity did not start with Sapir in Whorf. Although they popularized

the theory, it really began in Germany in the late-eighteenth century. Johann Georg

Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herber and Wilhelm von Humboldt first introduced the notion

that language affects thinking. Humboldt was the first European to combine a knowledge

EFL 503                          Southern New Hampshire University              October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                     MSTEFL Program                      Chad Detjen

of language with a philosophical viewpoint. In a hypothesis now called the

Weltanschauung (world-view) Hypothesis, Humboldt claimed that language actually

determined thought. More so, he thought that it was impossible to have thought without

language. In Gesammelte Werke Humboldt writes, “Man lives in the world about him

principally, indeed exclusively, as language presents it to him” (The Sapir-Whorf

Hypothesis, nd). At the time, critics argued that there must have been thought before

language. Humboldt answered this theory by proposing that language is like any living

organism; it evolves one day on its own (The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,nd).

           The hypothesis, however, did not gain popularity until the late 1920’s with the

work of Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf. Like many anthropological

linguists, Sapir was a student of the famous Franz Boas, who reported that just as English

uses separate roots for a variety of fomrs of water, Eskimo uses different roots for snow.

In graduate school, Sapir wrote his thesis on Herdir’s Origin of Language and also

studied the works of Wilhelm von Humboldt. Since them, he was obsessed with the idea

that language controls people’s thoughts. In an article entitled The Status of Linguistics as

a Science published in 1929, Sapir wrote, “We see and hear and otherwise experience

very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain

choices of interpretation” (Chandler, nd). To back up his ideas, Sapir studied Native

American languages, and he noted that speakers of different languages have to think or

pay attention to different aspects of reality just to put words together into sentences. A

classic example Sapir used as evidence is displayed with his work on Wintu speakers. In

English, speakers have to decide whether or not to put –ed onto the end of a verb. By

doing so, speakers are paying attention to tense, the time that the event took place and the

EFL 503                         Southern New Hampshire University              October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                    MSTEFL Program                      Chad Detjen

moment of thinking. Wintu speakers do not bother with tense because it is not in their

language; instead, they concern themselves with whether or not the knowledge they are

relating is learned through direct observation or hearsay (Pinker, 1994, p. 59).

           In the 1930’s Sapir’s student, Benjamin Whorf, extended the theory. Whorf was a

fire inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company and an amateur scholar of Native

American languages, which led him to take courses from Sapir at Yale. Whorf’s collected

writings made the theory widespread and created stir of controversy in the linguistic

world that goes on to this day. To sum up Whorf’s views, he believed that ”…when two

languages are similar there is little likelihood of dramatic cognitive differences. But

languages that differ from English and other Western european languages often lead their

speakers to have very different worldviews” (The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, nd).

Whorf’s ideas are said to be far more radical than his mentor and teacher. What led

Whorf to become so radical? As Whorf worked as a fire prevention engineer, he began to

notice how language led workers to mislead dangerous situations. An example was that

of a coworker who tossed a cigarette into an “empty” drum that was in fact filled with

gasoline vapor; the drum caused a serious explosion. Because the worker did not

distinguish between the two semantic meanings of the word empty, he tossed the lit

cigarette into the drum without thinking of the possible repercussions. Whorf links

American’s view of the word empty with that of the Apache language and found that

their view of empy is entirely different (Pinker, 1994, p.60).

           Whorf’s most famous observation deals with color. He noted that people see

objects in different colors depending on the wavelengths of the light they reflect, and

languages differ in their use of color words. Latin, for example, lacks “gray” and

EFL 503                          Southern New Hampshire University              October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                     MSTEFL Program                      Chad Detjen

brown;” Navajo combines blue and green into one word; Russian has distinct words for

dark blue and sky blue; Sheona speakers use one word for the yellower greens and the

greener yellows. Based on these observations, Whorf claimed that people see the world

in different ways based on which langauges they speak. So, a speaker of Navajo would

see the world differently than a speaker of Russian because of the way in which color

words are used in their languages (Pinker, 1994, p.62).

           Neither Sapir or Whorf wrote their hypothesis nor did they support it with

empirical evidence. Since then, much research has been done on Sapir and Whorf’s

writings and ideas. Today, the theory has been broken down into two principles:

linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity (Chandler, nd). Linguistic determinism

refers to the idea that the language we use determines the way in which we view the

world. This concept of determinism has been broken down even further. Strong

determinism is the extreme version stating that language actually determines thought, and

language and thought are identical. Weak determinism, however, refers to the notion that

thought is merely influenced by our language. Of the two concepts, weak determinism is

the version that is widely accepted today (The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, nd).

Evidence for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

           For more than fifty years, since the works of Sapir and Whorf, researchers have

been trying to design tests to study the Hypothesis. Although it is hard to test one’s view

of the world, linguists have had to settle with the study of behavior as a direct link to

thought. Along with this hardship, different interpretations of the hypothesis lead to

more controversy and skepticism. Because Sapir and Whorf do not state their hypothesis

exactly, researchers around the world have not settled on one interpretation; instead, there

EFL 503                          Southern New Hampshire University               October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                     MSTEFL Program                       Chad Detjen

are a number of interpretations of what researchers consider being the one and only

hypothesis. Despite these problems, there have been several studies performed over the

years that support or attempt to support the weaker linguistic relativity hypothesis (Sapir-

Whorf Hypothesis, nd).

           Some of the first studies done to test the Hypothesis were done with Whorf’s idea

of how different languages have different terms for color. Languages contain different

numbers of color names and split up the color spectrum differently. The Hypothesis

holds that people’s perception of color will be influenced by the color terms available to

them in their native language. In the English language, the spectrum is as follows:

purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. In Shona, there are only four categories, and

in Bassa there are only two. The first such tests were done in 1954 by Brown and

Lenneberg. Their study showed how terms of color influenced people’s color

discrimination. English-speaking subjects were better able to recognize hues which are

named in English, and other speakers had a difficult time differentiating between color

hues that were not in their native language (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis nd).

           Since this test, more in depth studies have been created. In 1969, the cognitive

anthropologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay began their studies with color-coding and

recognition. They established that there are 11 basic color terms based on the following

criteria: consist of only one morpheme, not contained within another color word, not

restricted to a small number (e.g. blond) and common and generally known. Based on

their studies and their idea of colors, Kay and Berlin discovered that there were

regularities in the pattern of color names selected in different languages that were

constrained by color vision. To understand more about their study, one must understand

EFL 503                          Southern New Hampshire University              October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                     MSTEFL Program                      Chad Detjen

how the human eye works. There are three cone types that vary in their sensitivity to

wavelength. They are known as the short, middle and long wavelength cones. The cone

types are then combined to form different colors (Thought and Language nd).

           Even though Berlin and Kay’s research was extensive, it was not field based.

Cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch took Kay and Berlin’s study to the field. Her

experiments dealt primarily with the Dani people of Papua New Guinea who have two

basic color terms in their langauge: “mili” for cold, dark colors and “mola” for warm,

light colors. In her experiment Rosch took a group of Dani people and a group of

Americans and gave them each a recognition memory task involving 40 colors. A

sample color was briefly presented, and half-minute later the participant selected the

sample from a full set of 40 colors. Her experiment found that the American group made

fewer recognition errors (Thought and Language nd).

           Many believe that these tests are not valid because they have to do with biological

factors more than linguistic or language factors, so color tests are not a valid way of

testing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. More recent tests stray from the color tests and

move onto different aspects to test this hypothesis. In 1995, two Australian

psychologists, Candida Peterson and Michael Siegal, studied deaf children to see if their

deafness effects their cognitive development. The test became known as the “Sally doll”

test and was not originally intended to test the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis specifically, but

their findings support linguistic relativity. In the test, the experimenter shows a child a

doll named Sally putting a marble in a box and then the experimenter takes Sally out of

the room. While the doll is gone, the experimenter hides a marble in a basket. Sally is

then brought back into the room, and the child is asked where Sally will look for her

EFL 503                          Southern New Hampshire University               October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                     MSTEFL Program                       Chad Detjen

marble. Children know that she will look in the box where Sally put it rather than in the

basket where the experimenter hid the marble (Skoyles, nd).

           Peterson and Siegal performed two Sally Doll tests using slightly different

wording in each test. The test used two different type of subjects: deaf children with

hearing parents and deaf children with deaf parents. It is noted that deaf children raised

by hearing parents experience a linguistic non-exposure to nonconcrete references, like

those linked to mental states such as beliefs, desires and feelings. This is a result of their

hearing parents not being able to communicate in the language needed to discuss these

abstract ideas. A deaf child needs to be communicated in sign language, but the hearing

parents used in this experiment only knew spoken language and therefore could not

communicate these ideas to their deaf children. In the first test, they tested 11 deaf

children of hearing parents and one deaf child of deaf parents aged between eight and

thirteen. Only one deaf child of hearing parents answered correctly. In a second

experiment six passed and seven did not. Based on these results, researchers inferred that

at least in some cases language might potentially shape cognition as suggested by Sapir

and Whorf (Skoyles, nd).

           Wassman and Dasen did the most recent study in 1998; their test is known as the

Balinese language test. The test found differences in how the Balinese people orient

themselves spatially to that of Westerners. In short, they found that the use of a reference

system based on geographic points on the island in the Balinese language correlates to the

significant cultural importance of these points to the people. They questioned how

language affects the thinking of the Balinese and found some linguistic relativity results

(Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, nd).

EFL 503                         Southern New Hampshire University             October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                    MSTEFL Program                     Chad Detjen

           The most interesting and ongoing experiment, however, was introduced nearly

fifty years ago by Dr. James Cooke Brown. In 1955, Brown attempted to separate

language and culture to test the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. He suggested that a new

language, one that is not bound to any particular culture, would distinguish the causes

from the effects of language, culture and thought. Brown called this artificial language

LOGLAN, which is short of logical language. Today with the help of the Internet, many

people around the world are learning LOGLAN. Linguists around the world are confident

that in future years LOGLAN will eventually be used to defend or dispute the theory of

linguistic relativism (Wikipedia, nd).

Evidence Against the Hypothesis

           One of the most prominent linguists to oppose Sapir and Whorf’s theory is Steven

Pinker. A psychologist at Harvard University and former professor at MIT, Pinker has

written about language and cognitive science at virtually every level. Most notably, he is

famous for his work on how children acquire knowledge and for furthering Noam

Chomsky’s work on language as a basic human instinct (Steven Pinker, nd). In his book

entitled The Language Instinct, Pinker adamantly attacks Whorf’s theory of language

relativity. Pinker writes, “The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an

example of what can be called a converntional absurdity: a statement that goes against all

common sense but that everyon believes because they dimly recall having heard it

somewhere…” (Pinker, 1994, p.57). Pinker believes that there is no specific evidence that

backs up Whorf’s theory and goes on to refute Whorf’s every statement.

           To go back, Whorf used the example of a worker who blew up a drum because of

his misunderstanding of the word “empty.” Whorf believed that the mans concept of

EFL 503                          Southern New Hampshire University              October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                     MSTEFL Program                      Chad Detjen

reality was molded by his linguistic categories. Whorf then went on to site different

examples from the Apache language to further back up his claim. Pinker, however, does

not buy any of this. Specifically, Pinker lists two reasons. First, Whorf did not study any

Apaches, and it is not clear whether or not Whorf even met one. Basically, his

assumptions were based on Apache grammar and not Apache’s themselves, so how could

Whorf tell how Apaches truly thought without ever speaking to one. Pinker’s second

argument is based on how Whorf misinterpreted language and used other languages in a

way that best applied to his theory. Whorf used word-for-word translations that were

designed to make the literal meanings seem as odd as possible. Pinker writes that he

could take an English sentence “He walks,” and turn it into “As solitary masculinity,

leggedness proceeds” (Pinker, 1994, nd). English speakers do not talk this way, but if

we translated word-for-word this sentence into another language it may come out strange.

Pinker believes that this is exactly what Whorf did and that his findings were consciously

skewed into his favor.

           Pinker goes on to refute the color tests as well. Whorf argued that the language

determines how people perceive color. Pinker, however, argues quite the opposite.

Specifically, Pinker, sites the work of psychologist Eleanor Rosch who studied The

Grand Valley Dani of New Guinea who only have two color words: black and white. In

her study, Rosch found that the Dani were quicker at learning a new color category that

was based on fire-engine red than a category based on an off-red. Pinker believes that

this study shows that, “The way we see colors determines how we learn words for them,

not vice-versa” (Pinker, 1994, pp. 62-63). Pinker’s refutations do not stop here; he goes

on to refute Whorf’s claim that Hopi people have no concept of time because their

EFL 503                          Southern New Hampshire University             October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                     MSTEFL Program                     Chad Detjen

language does not contain expressions that refer directly to time. Pinker does not agree;

he poses the following translation from Hopi: “Then indeed, the following day, quite

early in the morning at the hour when people pray to the sun, around that time then he

woke up the girl again” (Pinker, 1994, p.63). To Pinker, this translation is obvious that

the Hopi indeed have a concept of time and are not as oblivious as Whorf made them out

to be.

           Pinker, however, is not the only researcher to refute Whorf’s hypothesis. Over

the years, studies have been done that refute the hypothesis. There are three main points

that researchers use to dispute this hypothesis: translatability, differences between

linguistic and non-linguistic events and universals. The notion of translatability refers to

the fact that different languages may have different ways of dividing up their categories

of words it is still possible to translate from one language to another. Some languages

may have one word for what another language has five or six words for, but the idea is

the same and the thoughts are the same. The notion of translatability is the most popular

argument that researchers use to refute Whorf’s hypothesis.

           Eric Lenneberg, a linguist who pioneered ideas on language acquisition and

cognitive psychology argued against Whorf’s hypothesis believed 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. He writes, “linguistic and non-linguistic events must be

separately observed and described before they can be correlated” (Language and

Thought, nd). The third argument is the concept of universals. This argument was made

popular by Noam Chomsky, who claims that there are deep structures that are common to

EFL 503                       Southern New Hampshire University               October 20, 2003
Instructor: Dennis Hall                  MSTEFL Program                       Chad Detjen

all languages. Looking at this closer, researchers who side with Chomsky’s theory

believe that all cultures are related and have similar realities because every language has

a common deep structure. The most recent universalism test was done in 1998; it is

known as the cross-cultural color sorting test. The results found an obvious pattern in the

similarity of color sorting behavior between speakers of English, which has 11 basic

colors and Russian, which has 12 and Setswana, which has only five (Thought and

Language, nd).

Teaching Implications


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