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The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis makes the claim that the structure of the language one habitually uses influences the manner in which one thinks and behaves. Whorf recounts an anecdote that has become famous. While he was working as a fire insurance risk assessor, he noticed that the way people behaved toward things was often dangerously correlated to the way these things were called. For example, the sight of the sign 'empty' on empty gasoline drums would prompt passersby to toss cigarette butts into these drums, not realizing that the remaining gasoline fumes would be likely to cause an explosion. In this case, the English sign 'empty' evoked a neutral space, free of danger. Whorf concluded that the reason why different languages can lead people to different actions is because language filters their perception and the way they categorize experience.

So, for example, according to Whorf, whereas English speakers conceive of time as a linear, objective sequence of events encoded in a system of past, present, and future tenses (for example, 'He ran' or 'He will run'), or a discrete number of days as encoded in cardinal numerals (for example, ten days), the Hopi conceive of it as intensity and duration in the analysis and reporting of experience (for example, wari = 'He ran' or statement of fact, warikni = 'He ran' or statement of fact from memory). Similarly 'They stayed ten days' becomes in Hopi 'They stayed until the eleventh day' or 'They left after the tenth day'.

Whorf insists that the English language binds English speakers to a Newtonian view of objectified time, neatly bounded and classifiable, ideal for record-keeping, time-saving, clock-punching, that cuts up reality into 'afters' and 'untils', but is incapable of expressing time as a cyclic, unitary whole. By contrast, the Hopi language does not regard time as measurable length, but as a relation between two events in lateness, a kind of 'eventing' referred to in an objective way (as duration) and in a subjective way (as intensity). 'Nothing is suggested about time [in Hopi] except the perpetual "getting later" of it' writes Whorf. Thus it would be very difficult, Whorf argues, for an English and a Hopi physicist to understand each other's thinking, given the major differences between their languages. Despite the general translatability from one language to another, there will always be an incommensurable residue of untranslatable culture associated with the linguistic structures of any given language.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been subject to fierce controversy since it was first formulated by Whorf in 1940. Because it indirectly made the universal validity of scientific discoveries contingent upon the language in which they are expressed, it encountered the immediate scorn of the scientific community. The positivistic climate of the time rejected any intimation that language determined thought rather than the other way around; the proposition that we are prisoners of our language seemed unacceptable. And indeed it would be absurd to suggest that Hopis cannot have access to modern scientific thought because their language doesn't allow them to, or that they can gain a sense of Newtonian time only by learning English. One can see how a strong version of Whorf's relativity principle could easily lead to prejudice and racism. After all, it is always possible to translate across languages, and if this were not so, Whorf could never have revealed how the Hopis think. The link between a linguistic structure and a given cultural world view must, it was argued, be viewed as arbitrary.

Fifty years later, with the rise of the social sciences, interest in the linguistic relativity principle has revived. The translatability argument that was leveled against the incommensurability of cultures is not as convincing as it seemed. If speakers of different languages do not understand one another, it is not because their languages cannot be mutually translated into one another - which they obviously can, to a certain extent. It is because they don't share the same way of viewing and interpreting events; they don't agree on the meaning and the value of the concepts underlying the words. In short, they don't cut up reality or categorize experience in the same manner. Understanding across languages does not depend on structural equivalences but on common conceptual systems, born from the larger context of our experience.

The strong version of Whorf’s hypothesis, therefore, that posits that language determines the way we think, cannot be taken seriously, but a weak version, supported by the findings that there are cultural differences in the semantic associations evoked by seemingly common concepts, is generally accepted nowadays. The way a given language encodes experience semantically makes aspects of that experience not exclusively accessible, but just more salient for the users of that language.

For example, Navajo children speak a language that encodes differently through different verbs the action of 'picking up a round object' like a ball and 'picking up a long, thin, flexible object' like a rope. When presented with a blue rope, a yellow rope, and a blue stick, and asked to choose which object goes best with the blue rope, most monolingual Navajo children chose the yellow rope, thus associating the objects on the basis of their physical form, whereas monolingual English-speaking children almost always chose the blue stick, associating the objects on the basis of their color, although, of course, both groups of children are perfectly able to distinguish both colors and shapes.

This experiment is viewed as supporting the weak version of the Whorf hypothesis that language users tend to sort out and distinguish experiences differently according to the semantic categories provided by their respective codes. But it also shows that the resources provided by the linguistic code are understand-able only against the larger pragmatic context of people's experience. A Navajo child learning English might start categorizing experience in Navajo the way English speakers do. Thus, the generic semantic meanings of the code that have established themselves over time within a given discourse community are subject to the various and variable uses made of them in social contexts. We are, then, not prisoners of the cultural meanings offered to us by our language, but can enrich them in our pragmatic interactions with other language users.




The theory of linguistic relativity does not claim that linguistic structure constrains what people can think or perceive, only that it tends to influence what they routinely do think. In this regard, the work of Sapir and Whorf has led to two important insights:

1. There is nowadays a recognition that language, as code, reflects cultural preoccupations and constrains the way people think.

2. More than in Whorf’s days, however, we recognize how important context is in complementing the meanings encoded in the language.

The first insight relates to culture as semantically encoded in the language itself; the second concerns culture as expressed through the actual use of the language.




Meaning as sign


Language can mean in two fundamental ways, both of which are intimately linked to culture; through what it says or what it refers to as an encoded sign (semantics), and through what it does as an action in context (pragmatics). We consider in this chapter how language means as an encoded sign.


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