To What Extent Does Language Influence Thought?

Topics: Linguistics, Linguistic relativity, Language Pages: 8 (2731 words) Published: November 5, 2012
“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” – Benjamin Lee Whorf

The idea that language affects the way we remember things and the way we perceive the world was first introduced by the influential linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (Harley, 2008). The central idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, today more commonly known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, holds that “each language embodies a worldview, with quite different languages embodying quite different views, so that speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways” (Swoyer, 2003). In the late 1990s, Cameron claimed that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was regarded as “that which must be refuted at all costs” (1999) and it continued to be widely regarded as false during the second half of the 20th century (Casasanto, 2012). Still, the relationship between language and thought is one that has been studied even long before Sapir and Whorf, from German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt to works of fiction such as George Orwell’s 1984. This study aims to further review and expand upon previous research, following experimental evidence that reopened the debate at the turn of the 21st century in contemporary psycholinguistics. This ensuring debate, the extent to which language shapes nonlinguistic cognition and perception will be revisited. Moreover, this paper will consider the debate in context of cross-cultural implications. The extent to which people from different cultures construe, analyze and interact with the world differently will be analyzed. For the purpose of this paper, the Chinese (Mandarin) and English languages will be focused on in particular. Building upon existing literature, this paper will consider two central thesis statements: 1.)The use of spatiotemporal metaphors affect the way individuals think about time in the long term. 2.)Language has an indirect effect on cognition.

The first statement will focus on the construct of time and how it is perceived differently between the English and Mandarin languages. Furthermore, the long-term implications of metaphor use for thought processing will be discussed, and the extent to which these implications differ between the two Eastern and Western languages. The second statement takes on a more neurological role and will consider different features of language that affect different cognitive structures and processes.

The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis
The original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis consists of two related ideas, linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. According to Harley (2008), linguistic determinism is the idea that “the form and characteristics of our language determine the way in which we think, remember, and perceive”, while linguistic relativism is the idea that “as different language map onto the world in different ways, different languages will generate different cognitive structures” (p.89-90). There are three recognized versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as distinguished by Miller and McNeill (1969) as the strong, weaker and weakest versions. The strong version states that language determines thought, while in the weaker version language affects only perception and finally the weakest version presents that language differences affect processing on certain tasks where linguistic coding is important (Harley, 2008). There is the most research and support concerning the weakest version, and previous research has confirmed that it is the easiest one to test for (Harley, 2008). The differences in peoples’ “world view” (Harley, 2008) proposed by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis allows for an interesting cross-cultural investigation into linguistic diversity and the effect on the mind/brain. Whorf himself studied in great detail Native American Indian languages (Harley, 2008) and he found that in one of these, the Hopi language had no words or grammatical constructions for the conception of time....
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