Language and Thought

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Language and Thought
No one would disagree with the claim that language and thought interact in many significant ways. There is great disagreement, however, about the proposition that each specific language has its own influence on the thought and action of its speakers. On the one hand, anyone who has learned more than one language is struck by the many ways in which languages differ from one another. But on the other hand, we expect human beings everywhere to have similar ways of experiencing the world. Comparisons of different languages can lead one to pay attention to 'universals'--the ways in which all languages are similar, and to 'particulars' --the ways in which each individual language, or type of language, is special, even unique. Linguists and other social scientists interested in universals have formulated theories to describe and explain human language and human language behavior in general terms as species-specific capacities of human beings. However, the idea that different languages may influence thinking in different ways has been present in many cultures and has given rise to many philosophical treatises. Because it is so difficult to pin down effects of a particular language on a particular thought pattern, this issue remains unresolved. It comes in and out of fashion and often evokes considerable energy in efforts to support or refute it. Relativity and Determinism

There are two problems to confront in this arena: linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. Relativity is easy to demonstrate. In order to speak any language, you have to pay attention to the meanings that are grammatically marked in that language. For example, in English it is necessary to mark the verb to indicate the time of occurrence of an event you are speaking about: It's raining; It rained; and so forth. In Turkish, however, it is impossible to simply say, 'It rained last night'. This language, like many American Indian languages, has more than one past tense, depending on one's source of knowledge of the event. In Turkish, there are two past tenses--one to report direct experience and the other to report events that you know about only by inference or hearsay. Thus, if you were out in the rain last night, you will say, 'It rained last night' using the past-tense form that indicates that you were a witness to the rain; but if you wake up in the morning and see the wet street and garden, you are obliged to use the other past-tense form--the one that indicates that you were not a witness to the rain itself. Differences of this sort have fascinated linguists and anthropologists for centuries. They have reported hundreds of facts about 'exotic' languages, such as verbs that are marked or chosen according to the shape of an object that is being handled (Navajo) or for the relative ages of speaker and hearer (Korean). Such facts are grist for the mill of linguistic relativity. And, indeed, they can be found quite readily in 'nonexotic' languages as well. To cite a fact about English that is well known to linguists: It is not appropriate to say Richard Nixon has worked in Washington, but it is perfectly OK to say Gerald Ford has worked in Washington. Why? English restricts the present perfect tense ('has worked') to assertions about people who are alive. Exotic! Proponents of linguistic determinism argue that such differences between languages influence the ways people think--perhaps the ways in which whole cultures are organized. Among the strongest statements of this position are those by Benjamin Lee Whorf and his teacher, Edward Sapir, in the first half of this century--hence the label, 'The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis', for the theory of linguistic relativity and determinism. Whorf proposed: '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...
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