October 16, 2010
A reasonable summary of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its tractable form is that different cultures interpret the same world differently and this has an impact on how they both think and construct meaning in language; in fact, language shapes or influences thought to some degree. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis combines linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. Adherents of the hypothesis follow these two principles to varying degrees producing gradient interpretations from weak to strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Cognitive linguists are among the only linguists to take this “mentalist” position seriously, and most linguists of any orientation reject a strong version of the hypothesis. The linguistic determinism portion of the original hypothesis stated that language determined thought, and this is the rejected strong version. The linguistic relativity portion asserts that because language determines thought and there are different languages then the ways that those languages think will be different to some degree. Part of the controversy surrounding the hypothesis is the lack of empirical data, or at least appropriate empirical data. This has caused a number of researchers to begin considering how the ideas of linguistic determinism may affect judgment. For instance, in 2008 Daniel Casasanto performed a series of experiments with time, quantity and distance to determine whether or not speakers of Greek and speakers of English would have their judgments affected by the type of metaphors preferred by the language. The language did affect judgment to some degree, but it is not a causal claim about the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis. Other empirical research has looked at linguistic relativity as a shaper of thought as opposed to a determiner of thought. This hypothesis is important to linguistics because it acknowledges the relationship between thought and language, which may partially give stability to the cognitive claim that language use reflects conceptualization and that different conceptualizations are reflected in different linguistic organizations. This reminds me of a situation I once participated in where a rhetorical question was being translated from one language to another but the source language structure of the rhetorical question would have implied the exact opposite meaning in the target language had it been translated literally rather than in a manner that acknowledged the target language’s normal pattern of organization for rhetorical questions. Although this may be a simplified understanding of the importance of Sapir-Whorf, it at least seems to have vital implications in translation theory.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Greek Translation now available
Within linguistic theory, two extreme positions concerning the relationship between language and thought are commonly referred to as 'mould theories’ and 'cloak theories'. Mould theories represent language as 'a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast' (Bruner et al. 1956, p. 11). Cloak theories represent the view that 'language is a cloak conforming to the customary categories of thought of its speakers' (ibid.). The doctrine that language is the 'dress of thought' was fundamental in Neo-Classical literary theory (Abrams 1953, p. 290), but was rejected by the Romantics (ibid.; Stone 1967, Ch. 5). There is also a related view (held by behaviourists, for instance) that language and thought are identical. According to this stance thinking is entirely linguistic: there is no 'non-verbal thought', no 'translation' at all from thought to language. In this sense, thought is seen as completely determined by language. The Sapir-Whorf theory, named after the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, is a mould theory of language. Writing in 1929, Sapir argued in a classic passage that: Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor...