fThe Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
(Wikipedia Entry) 'He gave man speech, and speech created thought, Which is the measure of the universe' - Prometheus Unbound, Shelley The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as we know it today can be broken down into two basic principles: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity.
Linguistic Determinism: A Definition
Linguistic Determinism refers to the idea that the language we use to some extent determines the way in which we view and think about the world around us. The concept has generally been divided into two separate groups - 'strong' determinism and 'weak' determinism. Strong determinism is the extreme version of the theory, stating that language actually determines thought, that language and thought are identical. Although this version of the theory would attract few followers today - since it has strong evidence against it, including the possibility of translation between languages - we will see that in the past this has not always been the case. Weak determinism, however, holds that thought is merely affected by or influenced by our language, whatever that language may be. This version of determinism is widely accepted today.
Wilhelm von Humboldt: The 'Weltanschauung' Hypothesis.
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was the first European to combine a knowledge of various languages with a philosophical background; he equated language and thought exactly in a hypothesis we now call the 'Weltanschauung' (world-view) hypothesis, in fact a version of the extreme form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Humboldt maintained that language actually determined thought: Der mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja...sogar ausschliesslich so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zuführt." Humboldt viewed thought as being impossible without language, language as completely determining thought. On closer inspection, we can see that this extreme hypothesis leads to a question: how, if there was no thought before language, did language arise in the first place? Humboldt answers this by adhering to the theory that language is a platonic object, comparable to a living organism which just suddenly evolved one day entirely of its own accord.
Linguistic Relativity: A Definition
Linguistic relativity states that distinctions encoded in one language are unique to that language alone, and that "there is no limit to the structural diversity of languages". If one imagines the colour spectrum, it is a continuum, each colour gradually blending into the next; there are no sharp boundaries. But we impose boundaries; we talk of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. It takes little thought to realise that these discriminations are arbitrary - and indeed in other languages the boundaries are
different. In neither Spanish, Italian nor Russian is there a word that corresponds to the English meaning of 'blue', and likewise in Spanish there are two words 'esquina' and 'rincon', meaning an inside and an outside corner, which necessitate the use of more than one word in English to convey the same concept. These examples show that the language we use, whichever it happens to be, divides not only the colour spectrum, but indeed our whole reality, which is a 'kaleidoscopic flux of impressions', into completely arbitrary compartments.
The Notion of Codability
Codability has been defined by Peter Herriot as 'the ease with which a language tag can be used to distinguish one item from another'. Something is codable if it falls within the scope of readily available terms used in whatever particular language. Degrees of codability vary, in that while one language may be capable of expressing a concept with just one word, in another may be necessary to use a whole phrase to get across the same notion; a famous example of this is the fact that in Eskimo there are many different words for snow, depending on which kind of snow one is talking about. If we are looking for evidence to prove the weak version of...
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