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 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. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir 1958 , p. 69) This position was extended in the 1930s by his student Whorf, who, in another widely cited passage, declared that: We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. 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. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. (Whorf 1940, pp. 213-14; his emphasis) I will not attempt to untangle the details of the personal standpoints of Sapir and Whorf on the degree of determinism which they felt was involved, although I think that the above extracts give a fair idea of what these were. I should note that Whorf distanced himself from the behaviourist stance that thinking is entirely linguistic (Whorf 1956, p. 66). In its most extreme version 'the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis' can be described as consisting of two associated principles. According to the first, linguistic determinism, our thinking is determined by language. According to the second, linguistic relativity, people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world quite differently. On this basis, the Whorfian perspective is that translation between one language and another is at the very least, problematic, and sometimes impossible. Some commentators also apply this to the 'translation' of unverbalized thought into language. Others suggest that even within a single language any reformulation of words has implications for meaning, however subtle. George Steiner (1975) has argued that any act of human communication can be seen as involving a kind of translation, so the potential scope of Whorfianism is very broad indeed. Indeed, seeing reading as a kind of translation is a useful reminder of the reductionism of representing textual reformulation simply as a determinate 'change of meaning', since meaning does not reside in the text, but is generated by interpretation. According to the Whorfian stance, 'content' is bound up with linguistic 'form', and the use of the medium contributes to shaping the meaning. In common usage, we often talk of different verbal formulations 'meaning the same thing'. But for those of a Whorfian persuasion, such as the literary theorist Stanley Fish, 'it is impossible to mean the same thing in two (or more) different ways' (Fish 1980, p. 32). Reformulating something transforms the ways in which meanings may be made with it, and in this sense, form and content are inseparable. From this stance words are not merely the 'dress' of thought. The importance of what is 'lost in translation' varies, of course. The issue is usually considered most important in literary writing. It is illuminating to note how one poet felt about the translation of his poems from the original Spanish into other European languages (Whorf himself did not in fact regard European languages as significantly different from each other). Pablo Neruda noted that the best translations of his own poems were Italian (because of its similarities to Spanish), but that English and French 'do not correspond to Spanish - neither in vocalization, or in the placement, or the colour, or the weight of words.' He continued: 'It is not a question of interpretative equivalence: no, the sense can be right, but this correctness of translation, of meaning, can be the destruction of a poem. In many of the translations into French - I don't say in all of them - my poetry escapes, nothing remains; one cannot protest because it says the same thing that one has written. But it is obvious that if I had been a French poet, I would not have said what I did in that poem, because the value of the words is so different. I would have written something else' (Plimpton 1981, p. 63). With more 'pragmatic' or less 'expressive' writing, meanings are typically regarded as less dependent on the particular form of words used. In most pragmatic contexts, paraphrases or translations tend to be treated as less fundamentally problematic. However, even in such contexts, particular words or phrases which have an important function in the original language may be acknowledged to present special problems in translation. Even outside the humanities, academic texts concerned with the social sciences are a case in point. The Whorfian perspective is in strong contrast to the extreme universalism of those who adopt the cloak theory. The Neo-Classical idea of language as simply the dress of thought is based on the assumption that the same thought can be expressed in a variety of ways. Universalists argue that we can say whatever we want to say in any language, and that whatever we say in one language can always be translated into another. This is the basis for the most common refutation of Whorfianism. 'The fact is,' insists the philosopher Karl Popper, 'that even totally different languages are not untranslatable' (Popper 1970, p. 56). The evasive use here of 'not untranslatable' is ironic. Most universalists do acknowledge that translation may on occasions involve a certain amount of circumlocution. Individuals who regard writing as fundamental to their sense of personal and professional identity may experience their written style as inseparable from this identity, and insofar as writers are 'attached to their words', they may favour a Whorfian perspective. And it would be hardly surprising if individual stances towards Whorfianism were not influenced by allegiances to Romanticism or Classicism, or towards either the arts or the sciences. As I have pointed out, in the context of the written word, the 'untranslatability' claim is generally regarded as strongest in the arts and weakest in the case of formal scientific papers (although rhetorical studies have increasingly blurred any clear distinctions). And within the literary domain, 'untranslatability' was favoured by Romantic literary theorists, for whom the connotative, emotional or personal meanings of words were crucial (see Stone 1967, pp. 126-7, 132, 145). Whilst few linguists would accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its 'strong', extreme or deterministic form, many now accept a 'weak', more moderate, or limited Whorfianism, namely that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced by the kind of language we use. Moderate Whorfianism differs from extreme Whorfianism in these ways: * the emphasis is on the potential for thinking to be 'influenced' rather than unavoidably 'determined' by language; * it is a two-way process, so that 'the kind of language we use' is also influenced by 'the way we see the world'; * any influence is ascribed not to 'Language' as such or to one language compared with another, but to the use within a language of one variety rather than another (typically a sociolect - the language used primarily by members of a particular social group); * emphasis is given to the social context of language use rather than to purely linguistic considerations, such as the social pressure in particular contexts to use language in one way rather than another. Of course, some polemicists still favour the notion of language as a strait-jacket or prison, but there is a broad academic consensus favouring moderate Whorfianism. Any linguistic influence is now generally considered to be related not primarily to the formal systemic structures of a language (langue to use de Saussure's term) but to cultural conventions and individual styles of use (or parole). Meaning does not reside in a text but arises in its interpretation, and interpretation is shaped by sociocultural contexts. Conventions regarding what are considered appropriate uses of language in particular social contexts exist both in 'everyday' uses of language and in specialist usage. In academia, there are general conventions as well as particular ones in each disciplinary and methodological context. In every subculture, the dominant conventions regarding appropriate usage tend to exert a conservative influence on the framing of phenomena. From the media theory perspective, the sociolects of sub-cultures and the idiolects of individuals represent a subtly selective view of the world: tending to support certain kinds of observations and interpretations and to restrictothers. And this transformative power goes largely unnoticed, retreating to transparency.
The Relationship between Language and Culture
Jan 4th, 2010 | By Emma | Category: Topic
It is generally agreed that language and culture are closely related. Language can be viewed as a verbal expression of culture. It is used to maintain and convey culture and cultural ties. Language provides us with many of the categories we use for expression of our thoughts, so it is therefore natural to assume that our thinking is influenced by the language which we use. The values and customs in the country we grow up in shape the way in which we think to a certain extent. Cultures hiding in languages, examines the link between Japanese language and culture. An Insight into Korean Culture through the Korean Language discusses how Korean culture influences the language. Languages spoken in Ireland, focuses on the status of the Irish language nowadays and how it has changed over time. In our big world every minute is a lesson looks at intercultural communication and examines how it can affect interactions between people from countries and backgrounds.
Language, culture and thoughts: do languages shape the way we think? Apr 27th, 2011 | By Teresa | Category: English
Members of different cultures speak different languages. Does it mean that people who speak, let us say, English, see things differently than people who speak Chinese or Spanish? In other words, does language lead our way of thinking or is it the other way around? According to Benjamin Lee Whorf and his theory of linguistic relativity, language shapes the way we think, and determines what we think about. He believed that depending on the language we speak we see the world differently. His best example was the comparison between the idea of snow of an English person and an Eskimo person. The Eskimo has many words to describe snow, while the English only has one. An Eskimo has a specific word to describe the wet snow, the snow currently falling and so on. Therefore an Eskimo perceives the snow in a different way than an English person. Another example is the Dani people, a farming group from New Guinea. They only have two words to describe the two basic colors: dark and bright. Hence a Dani person cannot differentiate colors as well as an English person is able to. Although Benjamin's theory is not yet completely clarified, it is correct to say that a language could facilitate some ways of thinking. True or not, this topic is an interesting one to reflect upon. Linguists and people who speak many languages have come up with the same idea. Holy Roman EmperorCharles V spoke 6 languages fluently and said the following: I speak Italian to ambassadors, French to women, German to soldiers, English to my horse and Spanish to God.
What is the relationship between language and culture?
Language is the verbal expression of culture. Culture is the idea,custom and beliefs of a community with a distinct language containing semantics - everything a speakers can think about and every way they have of thinking about things as medium of communication. For example, the Latin language has no word for the female friend of a man (the feminine form ofamicus is amica, which means mistress, not friend) because the Roman culture could not imagine a male and a female being equals, which they considered necessary for friendship. Another example is that Eskimos have many different terms for snow...there are nuances that make each one different.
Language and culture are NOT fundamentally inseparable. At the most basic level, language is a method of expressing ideas. That is, language is communication; while usually verbal, language can also be visual (via signs and symbols), or semiotics (via hand or body gestures). Culture, on the other hand, is a specific set of ideas, practices, customs and beliefs which make up a functioning society as distinct.
A culture must have at least one language, which it uses as a distinct medium of communication to conveys its defining ideas, customs, beliefs, et al., from one member of the culture to another member. Cultures can develop multiple languages, or "borrow" languages from other cultures to use; not all such languages are co-equal in the culture. One of the major defining characteristics of a culture is which language(s) are the primary means of communication in that culture; sociologists and anthropologists draw lines between similar cultures heavily based on the prevalent language usage.
Languages, on the other hand, can be developed (or evolve) apart from its originating culture. Certain language have scope for cross-cultural adaptations and communication, and may not actually be part of any culture. Additionally, many languages are used by different cultures (that is, the same language can be used in several cultures).
Language is heavily influenced by culture - as cultures come up with new ideas, they develop language components to express those ideas. The reverse is also true: the limits of a language can define what is expressible in a culture (that is, the limits of a language can prevent certain concepts from being part of a culture).
Finally, languages are not solely defined by their developing culture(s) - most modern languages are amalgamations of other prior and current languages. That is, most languages borrow words and phrases ("loan words") from other existing languages to describe new ideas and concept. In fact, in the modern very-connected world, once one language manufactures a new word to describe something, there is a very strong tendency for other languages to "steal" that word directly, rather than manufacture a unique one itself. The English language is a stellar example of a "thief" language - by some accounts, over 60% of the English language is of foreign origin (i.e. those words were originally imported from another language). Conversely, English is currently the world's largest "donor" language, with vast quantities of English words being imported directly into virtually all other languages.