Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis Research Paper

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1. Nature And Scope Of The Hypothesis

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, refers to the proposal that the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality. Although proposals concerning linguistic relativity have long been debated, American linguists Edward Sapir (1884–1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941) advanced particularly influential formulations during the second quarter of the twentieth century, and the topic has since become associated with their names. The linguistic relativity hypothesis focuses on structural differences among natural languages such as Hopi, Chinese, and English, and asks whether the classifications of reality implicit in such structures affect our thinking about reality more generally.

Analytically, linguistic relativity as an issue stands between two others: a semiotic-level concern with how speaking any natural language whatsoever might influence the general potential for human thinking (i.e., the general role of natural language in the evolution or development of human intellectual functioning), and a functional or discourse-level concern with how using any given language code in a particular way might influence thinking (i.e., the impact of special discursive practices such as schooling and literacy on formal thought). Although analytically distinct, the three issues are intimately related in both theory and practice. For example, claims about linguistic relativity depend on understanding the general psychological mechanisms linking language to thinking, and on understanding the diverse uses of speech in discourse to accomplish acts of descriptive reference. Hence, the relation of particular linguistic structures to patterns of thinking forms only one part of the broader array of questions about the significance of language for thought.

Proposals of linguistic relativity necessarily develop two linked claims among the key terms of the hypothesis (i.e., language, thought, and reality). First, languages differ significantly in their interpretations of experienced reality—both what they select for representation and how they arrange it. Second, language interpretations have influences on thought about reality more generally—whether at the individual or cultural level. Claims for linguistic relativity thus require both articulating the contrasting interpretations of reality latent in the structures of different languages, and assessing their broader influences on, or relationships to, the cognitive interpretation of reality.

Simple demonstrations of linguistic diversity are sometimes mistakenly regarded as sufficient in themselves to prove linguistic relativity, but they cannot in themselves show that the language differences affect thought more generally. (Much confusion arises in this regard because of the practice in linguistics of describing the meaningful significance of individual elements in a language as ‘relative to’ the grammatical system as a whole. But this latter relativity of the meaning of linguistic elements to the encompassing linguistic structure should be distinguished from broader claims for a relativity of thought more generally to the form of the speaker’s language.) A variety of other arguments to the effect that distinctive perceptual or cognitive skills are required to produce and comprehend different languages likewise usually fail to establish any general effects on thought (see Niemeier and Dirven 2000).

Linguistic relativity proposals are sometimes characterized as equivalent to linguistic determinism, that is the view that all thought is strictly determined by language. Such characterizations of the language– thought linkage bear little resemblance to the proposals of Sapir or Whorf, who spoke in more general terms about language influencing habitual patterns of thought, especially at the conceptual level. Indeed, no serious scholar working on the linguistic relativity problem as such has subscribed to a strict determinism. (There are, of course, some who simply equate language and thought, but under this assumption of identity, the question of influence or determinism is no longer relevant.) Between the patent linguistic diversity that nearly everyone agrees exists and a claim of linguistic determinism that no one actually espouses, lies the proposal of linguistic relativity, that is the proposal that our thought may in some way be taken as relative to the language spoken.

2. Historical Development Of The Hypothesis

Interest in the intellectual significance of the diversity of language categories has deep roots in the European tradition (Aarsleff 1988, Werlen 1989, Koerner 1992). Formulations related to contemporary ones appear during the Enlightenment period in the UK (Locke), France (Condillac, Diderot), and Germany (Hamman, Herder). They are stimulated variously by opposition to the universal grammarians, by concerns about the reliability of language-based knowledge, and by practical efforts to consolidate national identities and cope with colonial expansion. Most of this work construes the differences among languages in terms of a hierarchical scheme of adequacy with respect to reality, to reason, or to both. Later, nineteenth-century work in Germany by Humboldt and in France Switzerland by Saussure drew heavily on this earlier tradition and set the stage for the approaches of Sapir and Whorf. Humboldt’s arguments, in particular, are often regarded as anticipating the Sapir–Whorf approach. He argued for a linguistic relativity according to the formal processes used by a language (e.g., inflection, agglutination, etc.). Ultimately this remains a hierarchical relativity in which certain language types (i.e., European inflectional ones) are viewed as more adequate vehicles of thought and civilization—a view distinctly at odds with what is to follow.

Working within the US anthropological tradition of Franz Boas and stimulated by the diversity and complexity of Native American languages, Edward Sapir (1949) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956) reinvigorated and reoriented investigation of linguistic relativity in several ways (Lucy 1992a, Lee 1997). First, they advocated intensive first-hand scientific investigation of exotic languages; second, they focused on structures of meaning, rather than on formal grammatical process such as inflection; and third, they approached these languages within a framework of egalitarian regard. Although not always well understood, theirs is the tradition of linguistic relativity most widely known and debated today. Whorf’s writings, in particular, form the canonical starting point for all subsequent discussion.

Whorf proposed a specific mechanism for how language influences thought, sought empirical evidence for language effects, and articulated the reflexive implications of linguistic relativity for scholarly thought itself. In his view, each language refers to an infinite variety of experiences with a finite array of formal categories (both lexical and grammatical) by grouping experiences together as analogically ‘the same’ for the purposes of speech. The categories in a language also interrelate in a coherent way, reinforcing and complementing one another, so as to constitute an overall interpretation of experience. These linguistic classifications vary considerably across languages not only in the basic distinctions they recognize but also in the assemblage of these categories into a coherent system of reference. Thus the system of categories which each language provides to its speakers is not a common, universal system, but a particular ‘fashion of speaking.’

Whorf argued that these linguistic structures influence habitual thought by serving as a guide to the interpretation of experience. Speakers tend to assume that the categories and distinctions of their language are entirely natural and given by external reality, and thus can be used as a guide to it. When speakers attempt to interpret an experience in terms of a category available in their language, they unwittingly involve other language-specific meanings implicit in that particular category and in the overall configuration of categories in which it is embedded. In Whorf’s view language does not blind speakers to some obvious reality, but rather it suggests associations which are not necessarily entailed by experience. Because language is such a pervasive and transparent aspect of behavior, speakers do not understand that the associations they ‘see’ are from language, but rather assume that they are ‘in’ the external situation and patently obvious to all. In the absence of another language (natural or artificial) with which to talk about experience, speakers will not be able to recognize the conventional nature of their linguistically based understandings. Whorf argues that by influencing everyday habitual thought in this way, language can come to influence cultural institutions generally, including philosophical and scientific activity.

In his empirical research Whorf showed that the Hopi and English languages treat ‘time’ differently, and that this difference corresponds to distinct cultural orientations toward temporal notions. Specifically, Whorf argued that speakers of English treat cyclic experiences of various sorts (e.g., the passage of a day or a year) in the same grammatical frame used for ordinary object nouns. Thus, English speakers are led to treat these cycles as object-like in that they can be measured and counted just like tangible objects. English also treats objects as if they each have a form and a substance. Since the cyclic words get put into this object frame, English speakers are led to ask what is the substance associated with the forms a day, a year, and so forth. Whorf argues that our global, abstract notion of ‘time’ as a continuous, homogeneous, formless something can be seen to arise to fill in the blank in this linguistic analogy. The Hopi, by contrast, do not treat these cycles as objects but as recurrent events. Thus, although they have, as Whorf acknowledged, words for what English speakers would recognize as temporal cycles (e.g., days, years, etc.), the formal analogical structuration of these terms in their grammar does not give rise to the abstract notion of ‘time’ that English speakers have. (Ironically, critics of Whorf ’s Hopi data often miss his point about structural analogy and focus narrowly on individual lexical items.) Finally, grouping referents and concepts as formally ‘the same’ for the purposes of speech has led speakers to group those referents and concepts as substantively ‘the same’ for action generally, as evidenced by related cultural patterns of belief and behavior he describes.

3. Empirical Research On The Hypothesis

Although the Sapir–Whorf proposal has had wide impact on thinking in the humanities and social sciences, it has not been extensively investigated empirically. Indeed, some believe it is too difficult, if not impossible in principle, to investigate. Further, a good deal of the empirical work that was first developed was quite narrowly confined to attacking Whorf ’s analyses, documenting particular cases of language diversity, or exploring the implications in domains such as color terms that represent somewhat marginal aspects of language structure. In large part, therefore, acceptance or rejection of the proposal for many years depended more on personal and professional predilections than on solid evidence. Nonetheless, a variety of modern initiatives have stimulated renewed interest in mounting empirical assessments of the hypothesis.

Contemporary empirical efforts can be classed into three broad types, depending on which of the three key terms in the hypothesis they take as their point of departure: language, reality, or thought (Lucy 1997).

A structure-centered approach begins with an observed difference between languages, elaborates the interpretations of reality implicit in them, and then seeks evidence for their influence on thought. The approach remains open to unexpected interpretations of reality but often has difficulty establishing a neutral basis for comparison. The classic example of a language-centered approach is Whorf ’s pioneering comparison of Hopi and English described above. The most extensive contemporary effort to extend and improve the comparative fundamentals in a structure-centered approach has sought to establish a relation between variations in grammatical number marking and attentiveness to number and shape (Lucy 1992b). This research remedies some of the traditional difficulties of structure-centered approaches by framing the linguistic analysis typologically so as to enhance comparison, and by supplementing ethnographic observation with a rigorous assessment of individual thought. This then makes possible the realization of the benefits of the structure-centered approach: placing the languages at issue on an equal footing, exploring semantically significant lexical and grammatical patterns, and developing connections to inter-related semantic patterns in each language.

A domain-centered approach begins with a domain of experienced reality, typically characterized independently of language(s), and asks how various languages select from, encode, and organize it. Typically, speakers of different languages are asked to refer to ‘the same’ materials or situations so the different linguistic construals become clear. The approach facilitates controlled comparison, but often at the expense of regimenting the linguistic data rather narrowly. The classic example of this approach, developed by Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg in the 1950s, showed that some colors are more lexically encodable than others, and that more codable colors are remembered better. This line of research was later extended by Brent Berlin, Paul Kay, and their colleagues, but to argue instead that there are cross- linguistic universals in the encoding of the color domain such that a small number of ‘basic’ color terms emerge in languages as a function of biological constraints. Although this research has been widely accepted as evidence against the validity of linguistic relativity hypothesis, it actually deals largely with constraints on linguistic diversity rather than with relativity as such. Subsequent research has challenged Berlin and Kay’s universal semantic claim, and shown that different color-term systems do in fact influence color categorization and memory. (For discussions and references, see Lucy 1992a, Hardin and Maffi 1997, Roberson et al. 2000.) The most successful effort to improve the quality of the linguistic comparison in a domain-centered approach has sought to show cognitive differences in the spatial domain between languages favoring the use of body coordinates to describe arrangements of objects (e.g., ‘the man is left of the tree’) and those favoring systems anchored in cardinal direction terms or topographic features (e.g., ‘the man is east/uphill of the tree’) (Pederson et al. 1998, Levinson in press). This research on space remedies some of the traditional difficulties of domain- centered approaches by developing a more rigorous and substantive linguistic analysis to complement the ready comparisons facilitated by this approach.

A behavior-centered approach begins with a marked difference in behavior which the researcher comes to believe has its roots in and provides evidence for a pattern of thought arising from language practices. The behavior at issue typically has clear practical consequences (either for theory or for native speakers), but since the research does not begin with an intent to address the linguistic relativity question, the theoretical and empirical analyses of language and reality are often weakly developed. The most famous example of a behavior-centered approach is the effort to account for differences in Chinese and English speakers’ facility with counterfactual or hypothetical reasoning by reference to the marking of counterfactuals in the two languages (Bloom 1981). The interpretation of these results remains controversial (Lucy 1992a).

4. Future Prospects

Two research trends are unfolding at the present time. First, in the cognitive and psychological sciences awareness is increasing of the nature and scope of language differences. This has led to a greater number of studies focused on the possible cognitive consequences of such differences (e.g., Levinson in press, Niemeier and Dirven 2000). Second, an increasing integration is emerging among the three levels of language and thought problem (i.e., the semiotic, structural, and functional levels). On the semiotic side, for example, research on the relationship between language and thought in development is increasingly informing and informed by work on linguistic relativity (Bowerman and Levinson 2001). On the functional side, research on the relationship of cultural and discursive patterns of use is increasingly being brought into dialogue with Whorfian issues (Silverstein 1979, Friedrich 1986, Wierzbicka 1992, Hill and Mannheim 1992, Gumperz and Levinson 1996).

The continued relevance of the linguistic relativity issue seems assured by the same impulses found historically: the patent relevance of language to human sociality and intellect, the reflexive concern with the role of language in scholarly practice, and the practical encounter with linguistic diversity. To this we must add the increasing concern with the unknown implications for human thought of the impending loss of many if not most of the world’s languages (Fishman 1982).

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