What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and how valid is it?
The debate on whether ‘language is the dress of thought’ originates in ancient Greece when Aristotle discussed the possibility that the thinking pattern influences to a certain degree the evolution of language (He, 2011: 1). The concept that language is ‘merely a reflection of thought and the objective world’ (He, 2011: 1) was re-examined several times throughout history; the conclusions drawn give us a new interpretation of language determinism. This essay will examine the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of language relativity and it will attempt to define the concept as well as to establish whether it was a turning point for reconsidering the correlation between culture, thought and language. While taking into consideration the contribution of Sapir and Whorf in highlighting the significance of the language in the process of understanding one’s ‘kaleidoscopic diversity of different worldviews ’(He, 2011: 1), the essay will also question the validity of the theory examining different tests and experiments conducted in this field. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis conceptualizes the idea that one’s thoughts and behaviour are dictated by his language. This theory can be broken down into two associated principles (The Linguist List, n.y) The first principle, linguistic determinism, sustains that way we see and think about the world is influenced by our language (“‘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 for their society) (Sapir cited in Chandler, 1994: 1). This theory can be divided into two contrasting ideas: strong determinism and “weak’ determinism. According to the first, language and thought are identical. Moreover, the language’s structure is said to influence or determine the individual’s sense of existence and to provide a framework for acquiring knowledge throughout life. This theory is nowadays generally rejected because it is hard to prove, and it suggests that bilingualism and translation are not possible. Many linguists have, however, accepted the ”weaker” version of determinism, which says that language merely affects or influences the way we think but does not determine the way we act (University Of Virginia, 2006: 1 – 2) . Additionally, this is thought to be a ‘two-way process’; the type of language one uses is also affected by one’s “world view”. The social context of the language is also emphasised (example: the pressure of using a certain kind of language in specific contexts) (Chandler, 1994: 3). The second principle, linguistic relativity, shapes the idea that people brought up in different cultures, therefore speaking different languages, will not think or see the world in a similar way (“‘We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages(...)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”.) (Whorf, 1940 cited in Chandler, 1994:1).Various languages carve up and sketch the world in various ways. This not only underlies that the language one speaks will affect the way in which he thinks about the world but that it will also influence one’s way of reasoning in different circumstances (University Of Virginia, 2006: 2).
Having explained the basic principles behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it is, however, important to note it’s limitations as well. To what extent the Sapir-Whorf theory can be used has been a high subject of debate for several decades. (Thompson, 1997: 85-86)
One point often highlighted is that, whilst the hypothesis indicates certain correlations between one’s language and one’s...
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