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The relationship between language, culture and thought has been a controversial discussion over decades. Many linguists and thinkers have argued that language lead to large differences in culture and thoughts. Some argue that language controls people’s view and thought of the world, where language embodies worldview, and some argue the otherwise. Language, culture and thought may always refer as together, but any one of them implies the other two. In this essay, I am going to focus on linguistic relativism and I will evaluate claims made by linguistic relativists.
Linguistic relativism is a weaker interpretation of linguistic determinism. It is “a window through which to view the cognitive process, not as an absolute. It’s set forth to be used in looking at a phenomenon differently than one usually would. ” (Badhesha, 2001) Linguistic categorize and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior. Linguistic relativity hypothesis has always been a controversial and serious topic. In late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Boas claimed that there’s no intrinsic relationship between culture and language.
(Boas, 1911) Acquainted with Boas, Edward Sapir was impressed with Boas’ statement. Later, he proposed a theory which becomes the most famous attempt in demonstrating relationship between language, culture and thoughts, “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” (Whorfian Hypothesis). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis can be broken into two simple concepts: Linguistic Determinism and Linguistic Relativism. Linguistic determinism holds a stronger view. It refers to “the concept that what is said has only some effect on how concepts are recognized by the mind”, “A strict view that what is said is directly responsible for what is seen by the mind.
” (Badhesha, 2002) This stronger point is supported by Sapir. Sapir: “language and culture are not intrinsically associated” but “language and our thought-grooves are inextricably interwoven, [and] are, in a sense, one and the same” (1921: 228, 232) Sapir believes that language and culture are not explicitly related but language, culture and thoughts are interwoven that cannot be unwoven each other. Sapir also expressed his view that language affects how we perceive the world, “Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose.
… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. ” (1929, p. 210) Sapir here explained that language determines our thoughts and culture, it affects our views of the world and culture is a product of language. Sapir’s student, Benjamin Lee Whorf supported and made his theory stronger. Whorf’s claims are both to the extreme, strongest but to the weaker and more cautious at the same time. The extreme perspective is linguistic determinism, where the weaker is linguistic relativism.
In fact, linguistic relativism is widely spread through Whorf’s work. Whorf: “The background linguistic system of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas. ” (1940, “Science and Linguistics,” Technology Review 42: 229-31, 247-8) In this quote, Whorf proposed the stronger form where language determines thought, language shapes our ideas. “The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which have to be organized largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.
” (Whorf, 1940a:231) This is a weaker form where Whorf argue that the world is somehow under the influence of our linguistic systems. Both in stronger and weaker form, Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis argue that our thoughts, ideas, behavior and culture are under the influence of language. This hypothesis is supported with evidence. Perception of colors is one of the obvious evidence that support language influences our thoughts. Different languages has their way to encode and categorize colors, in English, there are sixteen basic colors and common two color terms “dark” and “light”.
However, Russian has different words to distinguish light blue (boluboy) and dark blue (siniy). When Russian and English speakers are put to a test to discriminate the two blue colors, Russian is found to be better at it. As Russian perceive the two blue colors as different colors unlike English speakers who categorize it as blue generally. In both English and Chinese, when giving directions verbally, we tend to use “left” and “right” instead of E/W/S/N, this is also true in many other languages.
However, Kuuk Thaayorra (aboriginal language spoken in Queensland, Australia), they use E/W/S/N to represent “left” and “right”, e. g. when they refer to right hand, they may say east hand. Their perception of the world differs from us due to the use of direction terms. To them, the world needs to include precise orientations. This is an example of perception of space which display language affects our perceptions and thoughts. Grammatical feature is another proof of language affects our culture.
Whorf asserts that “users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammar towards different types of observations… and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world” (Whorf 1940b:61) Whorf suggested that speakers of different languages will think about the world differently. Hopi language (aboriginal language spoken in Arizona) is early evidence to Whorfian Hypothesis on language and thought. In Hopi language system, they don’t have tenses such as –ed, -ing, -s in SAE , they have different perspective of time from SAE speakers.
Also, in Hopi, the concept of time cannot be counted and talked like a physical quantity. Language also affects and reflects our culture and values. In Hong Kong, we refer to relatives in different terms, not only “aunt/uncle”, “cousins” unlike English. For example, we have different terms for cousins that are older and younger than us, e. g. “biu-gor” (older male cousin), “biu-mui” (younger female cousin). It reflects the hierarchy and projects the importance of respecting senior in Chinese family. We can see that Chinese family, including families in Hong Kong divides and identifies its members.
For Chinese people, they perceive seniors as people to respect. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the idea that the language that person speaks will affect their perception of the world and accordingly their behavior and culture. In stronger form, language determines the way we think and what we are capable to think of where as linguistic relativity; the weaker form indicates that our thoughts and culture are under the influence of language. Although there are more and more scientific and real life examples that support Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, anthropologists and linguists still argues weather the hypothesis is too strong or not today.
Many argue that instead of language determining our thoughts and culture, they are in fact inter-related and none of them should be dominating the other two. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has received criticism over the years, and it summed up to be three main criticisms, the idea of causality, the methods and translations. While Whorf and Sapir claimed that language affects our perception of the world and the formation of our cultures. Both of them didn’t include the evolution of language, what made up our language, the cultural values that may have been included while setting language system.
It is possible that cultural values that might have developed language helped the way we perceive the world. Humboldt (late 18th century) also questioned Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis, “The spiritual traits and the structure of the language of a people are so intimately blended that, given either of the two, one should be able to derive the other from it… language is their spirit, and their spirit is their language; it is difficult to imagine any two things more identical. ” He also questioned the causality of such hypothesis. Whether if language is the spirit of thoughts and culture or the otherwise.
He claims that it is uncertain which one should be derives and to be the spirit of the others. Another obvious criticism is the methods Whorf’s methods. Some believed that Whorf deliberately translated Hopi language in a certain way to support his own hypothesis, to emphasis another thinking system. Linguists, Steven Pinker accused Whorf’s method with strong attitude, “No one is really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims, but his limited, badly analyzed sample of Hopi speech and his long-term leanings towards mysticism must have helped.
” (Pinker, 1994) He also overthrown Whorf’s claim of Hopi people has different perception of time as “anthropologist Malotki (1983) has found that the Hopi do have a concept of time very similar to ours. ” (Neil Parr-Davies, 2001) Translation is another criticism of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Many critics raised the question, if our thoughts are really affected and determined by language, then presumably certain concepts would only be understandable to people that shared the same language.
That suggested that if the hypothesis is entirely true, Whorf would have been failed to understand Hopi people’s concept, needless to say even to understand their first thought. Although criticisms are raised against Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, there are more evidence and claims that support it even in modern days. In fact, psycholinguistic have been studying far beyond perception of color and Hopi language currently, it has been studying and discovering more evidence in modern days such as emotion perception, memory etc. Modern famous researchers like Lera Boroditsky, John A.
Lucy believe in Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language indeed influences thoughts, however in relatively narrow ways. I agree the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to a large extent. I believe language does influence our thoughts and perceptions of the world. Recently, I have been studying different accents in the world and discovered that it is evidence supporting the linguistic relativists. For example, if someone speaks English in BBC accents or Queen’s English, we would immediately refer them coming from higher social status in Britain.
Indeed, our perception can be easily affected by the trivial elements in language as accents. Even nowadays, there are more and more evidence that prove linguistic relativists; we cannot deny the fact that language does somehow shape our daily thoughts and life. Language changes the way we see different culture, it can reflect a certain culture and background of people. Taking Soviet Ukraine as an example, as the prices and supply of product was centrally controlled, they were very cheap and hard to find, and instead of saying “What are they selling? ” they ask, “Shcho dajut?
”(What are they giving? ). Through the language, we can see the cultural values and background of a country, allowing us to understand and perceive different cultures. Nonetheless, I disagree to a small extent as I believe, on one hand, language may shape our thoughts and culture; on the other hand, our culture and thoughts also shape language. Language may act as a tool merely reflecting our thoughts and culture. Under patriarchy and stereotyping, many European countries referred male as a stronger, rational and more dynamic member of the society while female were emotional, silent and subtle one.
Leading European languages like French, Spanish are some examples that reflect social stereotyping under patriarchal influence. In French, almost all sport and daylight activities are referred as male, “le soleil” (the sun) while almost all night time activities are referred as female, “la lune” (the moon). Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a powerful and leading linguistic theory that suggests the relationship between language, culture and thoughts.
It can be interpreted as linguistic determinism and relativism; it remains arguable and controversial whether this hypothesis is too strong. Much evidence arises even until today supporting the hypothesis. It is inevitable that every hypothesis receives criticism, but I truly believe the reason why Whorfianism is still being studied today is because we can never deny the influence of language on our thoughts and culture. Language may not be the one the strongly defines our perception and values, but it does affects us in our everyday life.
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