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The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

From George Orwell's 1984 (1948):

"The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought--that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc--should be literally unthinkable, at least as far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect method. This was done partly by the invention of new words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever...A person growing up with Newspeak as his sole language would no more know that ‘equal' had once had the secondary meaning of "politically equal," or that ‘free' had once meant "intellectually free," than, for instance, a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to ‘queen' or ‘rook.' There would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond his power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable."

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis theorizes that thoughts and behavior are determined (or are at least partially influenced) by language. If true in its strongest sense, the sinister possibility of a culture controlled by Newspeak or some other language is not just science fiction. Since its inception in the 1920s and 1930s, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has caused controversy and spawned research in a variety of disciplines including linguistics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and education. To this day it has not been completely disputed or defended, but has continued to intrigue researchers around the world.

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf brought attention to the relationship between language, thought, and culture. Neither of them formally wrote the hypothesis nor supported it with empirical evidence, but through a thorough study of their writings about linguistics, researchers have found two main ideas. First, a theory of linguistic determinism that states that the language you speak determines the way that you will interpret the world around you. Second, a weaker theory of linguistic relativism that states that language merely influences your thoughts about the real world.

Edward Sapir studied the research of Wilhelm von Humboldt. About one hundred years before Sapir published his linguistic theories, Humboldt wrote in Gesammelte Werke a strong version of linguistic determinism: "Man lives in the world about him principally, indeed exclusively, as language presents it to him." Sapir took this idea and expanded on it. Although he did not always support this firm hypothesis, his writings state that there is clearly a connection between language and thought.

From "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" (1929)
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 in 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: 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. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached...Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose...We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

As the underlined portions show, Sapir used firm language to describe this connection between language and thought. To Sapir, the individual is unconscious to this connection and subject to it without choice.

Benjamin Lee Whorf was Sapir's student. Whorf devised the weaker theory of linguistic relativity: "We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe..." (1940/1956). He also supported, at times, the stronger linguistic determinism. To Whorf, this connection between language and thought was also an obligation not a choice.

From "Science and Linguistics" (1940/1956):
"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 to organize it in this way–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."

Both Sapir and Whorf agreed that it is our culture that determines our language, which in turn determines the way that we categorize our thoughts about the world and our experiences in it.

For more than fifty years researchers have tried to design studies that will support or refute this hypothesis. Support for the strong version has been weak because it is virtually impossible to test one's world view without using language. Support for the weaker version has been minimal. Yet this hypothesis continues to fascinate researchers.

Problems with the hypothesis begin when one tries to discern exactly what the hypothesis is stating. Penn notes that the hypothesis is stated "more and less strongly in different places in Sapir's and Whorf's writings" (1972:13). At some points, Sapir and Whorf appear to support the strong version of the hypothesis and at others they only support the weak version. Alford (1980) also notes that neither Sapir nor Whorf actually named any of their ideas about language and cognition the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This name only appeared after their deaths. This has lead to a wide interpretation of what researchers consider to be the one and only hypothesis.

Another problem with the hypothesis is that it requires a measurement of human thought. Measuring thought and one's world view is nearly impossible without the confounding influence of language, another of the variables being studied. Researchers settle for the study of behavior as a direct link to thought.

If one is to believe the strong version of linguistic determinism, one also has to agree that thought is not possible without language. What about the pre-linguistic thought of babies? How can babies acquire language without thought? Also, where did language come from? In the linguistic determinist's view, language would have to be derived from a source outside the human realm because thought is impossible without language and before language there would have been no thought.

Supporters of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis must acknowledge that their study of language in the "real world" is not without doubt if their language influences how they categorize what they seem to experience. Penn writes, "In short, if one believes in linguistic relativity, one finds oneself in the egocentric quandary, unable to make assertions about reality because of doubting one's own ability to correctly describe reality" (1972:33).

Yet another problem with the hypothesis is that languages and linguistic concepts are highly translatable. Under linguistic determinism, a concept in one language would not be understood in a different language because the speakers and their world views are bound by different sets of rules. Languages are in fact translatable and only in select cases of poetry, humor and other creative communications are ideas "lost in the translation."

One final problem researchers have found with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is Whorf's lack of empirical support for his linguistic insights. Whorf uses language nuances to prove vast differences between languages and then expects his reader to infer those differences in thought and behavior. Schlesinger attacks Whorf's flimsy thesis support: "...the mere existence of such linguistic diversities is insufficient evidence for the parallelist claims of a correspondence between language on the one hand and cognition and culture, on the other, and for the determinist claim of the latter being determined by the former" (1991:18). Schlesinger also fails to see the connection between Whorf's linguistic evidence and any cultural or cognitive data. "Whorf occasionally supplies the translations from a foreign language into English, and leaves it to the good faith of the reader to accept the conclusion that here must have been a corresponding cognitive or cultural phenomenon" (1991:27).

One infamous example Whorf used to support his theory was the number of words the Inuit people have for ‘snow.' He claimed that because snow is a crucial part of their everyday lives and that they have many different uses for snow that they perceive snow differently than someone who lives in a less snow-dependent environment. Pullum has since dispelled this myth in his book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (1991). He shows that while the Inuit use many different terms for snow, other languages transmit the same ideas using phrases instead of single words.

Despite all these problems facing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, there have been several studies performed that support at least the weaker linguistic relativity hypothesis. In 1954, Brown and Lenneberg tested for color codability, or how speakers of one language categorize the color spectrum and how it affects their recognition of those colors. Penn writes, "Lenneberg reports on a study showing how terms of colors influence the actual discrimination. English-speaking subjects were better able to re-recognize those hues which are easily named in English. This finding is clearly in support of the limiting influence of linguistic categories on cognition" (1972:16). Schlesinger explains the path taken in this study from positive correlation to support for linguistic relativity: "...if codability of color affected recognizability, and if languages differed in codability, then recognizability is a function of the individual's language" (1991:27)

Lucy and Shweder's color memory test (1979) also supports the linguistic relativity hypothesis. If a language has terms for discriminating between color then actual discrimination/perception of those colors will be affected. Lucy and Shweder found that influences on color recognition memory is mediated exclusively by basic color terms–a language factor.

Kay and Kempton's language study (1984) found support for linguistic relativity. They found that language is a part of cognition. In their study, English speakers' perceptions were distorted in the blue-green area while speakers from Tarahumara–who lack a blue-green distinction–showed no distortion. However, under certain conditions they found that universalism of color distinction can be recovered.

Peterson and Siegal's "Sally doll" test (1995) was not intended to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis specifically, but their findings support linguistic relativity in a population who at the time had not yet been considered for testing–deaf children. Peterson and Siegal's experiment with deaf children showed a difference in the constructed reality of deaf children with deaf parents and deaf children with hearing parents, especially in the realm of non-concrete items such as feelings and thoughts.

Most recently, Wassman and Dasen's Balinese language test (1998) found differences in how the Balinese people orient themselves spatially to that of Westerners. They found that the use of an absolute 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 people and found moderate linguistic relativity results.

There are, on the other hand, several studies that dispute the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Most of these studies favor universalism over relativism in the realm of linguistic structure and function. For example, Osgood's common meaning system study found that "human beings the world over, no matter what their language or culture, do share a common meaning system, do organize experience along similar symbolic dimensions" (1963:33)

In his universalism studies, Greenberg came to the conclusion that "agreement in the fundamentals of human behavior among speakers of radically diverse languages far outweighs the idiosyncratic differences to be expected from a radical theory of linguistic relativity" (1963:125).

Alford's interpretation of Whorf shows that Whorf never intended for perception of the color spectrum to be used to defend his principle of linguistic relativity. Alford states, "In fact, he is quite clear in stating that perception is clearly distinct from conception and cognition, or language-related thinking" (1980).

Even Dr. Roger Brown, who was one of the first researchers to find empirical support for the hypothesis, now argues that there is much more evidence pointing toward cognitive universalism rather than linguistic relativity (Schlesinger 1991:26).

Berlin and Kay's color study (1969) found universal focus colors and differences only in the boundaries of colors in the spectrum. They found that regardless of language or culture, eleven universal color foci emerge. Underlying apparent diversity in color vocabularies, these universal foci remain recognizable. Even in languages which do not discriminate to eleven basic colors, speakers are nonetheless able to sort color chips based on the eleven focus colors.

Davies' cross-cultural color sorting test (1998) found an obvious pattern in the similarity of color sorting behavior between speakers of English which has eleven basic colors, Russian which has twelve (they distinguish two blues), and Setswana which has only five (grue=green-blue). Davies concluded that the data showed strong universalism.

Culture influences the structure and functions of a group's language, which in turn influences the individual's interpretations of reality. Whorf saw language and culture as two inseparable sides of a single coin. According to Alford, "Whorf sensed something ‘chicken-and-egg-y' about the language-culture interaction phenomenon" (1980). Indeed, deciding which came first the language or the culture is impossible to discern. Schlesinger notes that Whorf recognized two directions of influence–from culture to language and vice versa. However, according to Schlesinger, Whorf argues that "since grammar is more resistant to change than culture, the influence from language to culture is predominant" (1991:17).

Language reinforces cultural patterns through semantics, syntax and naming. Grammar and the forms of words show hierarchical importance of something to a culture. However, the common color perception tests are not strongly linked to cultural experience. Schlesinger agrees: "Whorf made far-reaching claims about the pervasive effects of language on the mental life of a people, and all that experimental psychologists managed to come up with were such modest results as the effect of the vocabulary of a language on the discriminability of color chips" (1991:30).

In 1955, Dr. James Cooke Brown attempted to separate language and culture to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He suggested the creation of a new language–one not bound to any particular culture--to distinguish the causes from the effects of language, culture, and thought. He called this artificial language LOGLAN, which is short for Logical Language. According to Riner, LOGLAN was designed as an experimental language to answer the question: "In what ways is human thought limited and directed by the language in which one thinks?" (1990).

Today with the help of the Internet, many people around the world are learning LOGLAN. Riner appears positive in the continuing work with LOGLAN to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:
"As far as we can yet know, LOGLAN can accommodate precisely and unambiguously the native ways of saying things in any natural language. In fact, because it is logically rigorous, LOGLAN forces the speaker to make the metaphysical (cultural, worldview) premises in and of the natural language explicit in rendering the thought into (disambiguated) LOGLAN. Those assumptions, made explicit, become propositions that are open for critical review and amendment–so not only can the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis be tested, but its details can be investigated with LOGLAN" (1990).

Further research and linguistic development is necessary to find out if LOGLAN will defend or dispute the theory of linguistic relativism.

Other aspects of this hypothesis which warrant further research include another look at Peterson and Siegal's study involving deaf children, and Lucy's suggestion of a new theoretical account of language and thought. In Peterson and Siegal's study there are revealed two naturally occurring groups–deaf children of hearing parents and deaf children of deaf parents--which allow for a within culture test of linguistic relativity (Skoyles 1999). Their results offer direct evidence that language molds thought. Additional research in this area with specific testing of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in mind could prove successful. Also, Lucy states that all linguistic relativity proposals claim that language has some influence on thoughts about reality. He further suggests that "a theoretical account needs to articulate exactly how languages interpret experiences and how those interpretations influence thought" (1997:291).

In his introduction to Whorf's body of work, John Carroll suggests a reason why so much attention and controversy surround the theory of linguistic relativism. Carroll states, "Perhaps it is the suggestion that all one's life one has been tricked, all unaware, by the structure of language into a certain way of perceiving reality, with the implication that awareness of this trickery will enable one to see the world with fresh insight" (1956:27). The world is getting smaller with the diffusion of computers and new communications technology. Interaction between members of different cultures is becoming easier and more prevalent. On a global scale, the hypothesis could be taken as a possible rationalization why foreign nations fail to communicate successfully. Awareness of linguistic relativity, however, should lead to a better understanding of cultural diversities and help to bridge intercultural communication gaps.


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Rebecca Ash
COMM 374