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This paper tries to answer the question of whether our native language influences the ways we think, to what extent and in which circumstances. It explores different findings of linguistic relativity and how they assert the notion of this hypothesis. Topics such as words for color and their influence on perception, grammatical gender, grammatical tense of words, spatial and time conceptualizations, and socio-cultural aspects are discussed all in relation to their influence on the speaker’s thought process. Evidence contradicting this hypothesis is also provided in areas such as different numbers of total color words in a language and different numbers of words for “snow” in Eskimo languages.
This paper keeps in mind the cultural and social influences of language that also interplay with the thought processes of the speakers of that language.
Humans are social beings. Even in the early days of the Stone Age, nomads would communicate in some form. They needed each other to survive and that is precisely why language was formed.
Being able to express our needs and wants clearly to another human being is crucial to the survival and rising of our species. This is something that we as a species have come to agree on however, other aspects of language remain to be discussed by researchers and scholars to this day. One such controversial theory is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, which implies that our native language influences our thoughts and determines our behavior, to the extent that we are unable to understand certain concepts in other foreign languages; an aspect of this hypothesis called linguistic determinism (Whorf, 1956). Although today, people don’t believe that our language is capable of being such a constricting cage, there are others that argue that to a certain extent, our native tongue has an ability to influence the ways in which we think. The research findings range from the grammatical tense of language influencing economic behavior, to the words for color one language uses, changing the perception of these colors. Findings such as these will be discussed to create a summary of the implications of linguistic relativity and how language plays a role in our cognition.
We begin our discussion by acknowledging the innate relationship between culture and language. This idea that our language shapes the way we think is also intertwined with the culture and values of the nations that use that particular language. Two researchers touch up on this idea in their modern take on linguistic relativity by suggesting that when studying spatial language conceptualization, “culturally derived distinctions are likely to play a significant role in habitual discrimination and orientation” (Gumperz and Levinson, 1991). What they seem to be saying is that when observing how language structure and grammar function to shape our thoughts, we must not forget to include culture as a parallel factor. Cultural implications of language will be discussed in more detail later on when we discuss the particular finding of how the absence of the future tense in Mandarin implies better saving of money in the Chinese culture.
When talking about grammatical and structural aspects of language and how it plays a role in our thought processes, there is a particular study that examines the way the presence of grammatical gender for objects influences our perception. Phillips & Boroditsky (2003) have found that when people whose language assigns particular genders (masculine, feminine or neutral) to inanimate objects, they tend to have different mental representations of those objects when comparing them to people. With that being said, people who speak language such as Spanish and French tend to view inanimate objects of a certain gender in a similar way that they view people of a certain gender. When looking at the word “bridge” (“puente”), which has a masculine pronoun (“el”), people that speak Spanish tend to acknowledge the masculine features of that object such as, being strong and sturdy and in turn compare it to a male who has similar features. This is just one example of how language can influence the way we make mental representations of things that we encounter in the world. However, we must not generalize this finding because not all of the words produce the same effect due to some of them having exceptions and being arbitrarily assigned genders.
Another grammatical aspect of language that is shown to influence thought and behavior as well is word tense. A study done by Chen (2013) explores how the absence of the future tense in Mandarin has aided people to think more in a present state of mind, allowing them to save more and retire with more money for the future. Chen (2013) states that because Chinese people who speak Mandarin (absence of future tense) think about the future as being closer than people who speak a different language, e.g. English (presence of a future tense), it allows them to be more financially prepared for the future. Although this finding seems to favor the linguistic relativity hypothesis, it seems that culture plays another fundamental factor in this conclusion. In order to get a concrete picture of the way language tense influences thought and behavior of people who speak the language, we must also understand that the differing cultures between Chinese and Americans also play a role in influencing people’s world view.
The socio-cultural aspects of a language seem to have a great impact on the thoughts and behaviors that are experienced by its speakers. Rashid (2013) makes a point related to this view of linguistic relativity when he observed how bilingual speakers of Urdu and English choose to use the languages in conversation. He concludes that because of the current status of the Unite States as a superpower in the world, Pakistani ESL learners choose to use the English when trying to achieve directness, assertion and persuasion (Rashid, ISION (Rashid, 2013). This influence of socio-cultural status of a language is an important note to make when exploring linguistic relativity.
Another implication of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis involves how speakers of different languages talk and think about time. One study examines Chinese and English native speakers and how their representations of time influence the way they think about time when performing certain tasks (Boroditsky 2001). Boroditsky (2001) found that although both languages employ similar spatial metaphors for time (e.g. horizontal: forward/behind and vertical: up/down), English speakers are faster at concluding that one month comes earlier than another when primed by horizontal metaphors, and the opposite is true for Mandarin speakers, where they are faster at this task when primed by vertical metaphors. It is important to note that although both languages use similar spatial terms when talking about time, in English the more commonly used terms tend to be horizontal and in Mandarin, vertical. This goes back to the notion that the native language of a person can influence the way that they think about certain concepts even when using a different language, such as English in the particular study mentioned, to complete a task. In this example, we can see the implications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but not to the full, original extent that was intended, which suggests that our native language determines what we are able to think.
A different take on how concepts of time in one language influence thought, studies the differences between English speakers and a community of Australian-Aboriginals called Pormpuraaw. The study points out that the Pormpuraaw people have an expert ability in identifying spatial orientation and this plays a role on their representations of time (Boroditsky and Gaby, 2010). The study concludes that when thinking about time, Pormpuraawans rely heavily on their knowledge of spatial direction (east, west, north, south), unlike other people who lack this expert ability (2010). They also think about time in relation to their own facing direction at a particular moment however, English speakers think about time in a horizontal spatial fashion (left to right) regardless of their spatial orientation (2010). From this, it is apparent that the terms used for time in a language can influence the way we think about such a basic, seemingly universal concept.
Another basic, but seemingly universal concept has also been found to be related to linguistic relativity. The notion of color is an interesting aspect of language that has called upon researchers to study it. In the English language we have a myriad of color terms. Some of them are actual colors (e.g. blue, green, red, yellow, orange, violet, white and black) and some of them are made up colors by society and its changing attitudes towards fine art (maroon, pink, denim, navy blue, etc.). These “made-up” colors stem from a combination of two or more different colors. Some languages do not have words for the colors we have in English, but does that mean that they can’t think about or moreover see these colors? Of course not, and I don’t think this question is the underlying issue that lies within this argument. However, this fact introduces an important distinction between different numbers of color terms in different languages and how they influence the speaker.
First, we will begin with an argument against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity. The reason I am introducing this argument first is because the findings that back up this argument were found before the findings that back up my own argument. Regardless, the argument in question was introduced by Eleanor Rosch in 1987, when she studied the Dani people of New Guinea. In her exploration, she found that the Dani people had only two words for color that roughly translate to dark and light however, their lack of words for color did not affect their ability to perceptualize colors (Rosch, 1987). Their ability for color memory was similar to that of English speakers, who have a whole lot more color words (1987). This finding disproved the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and concluded that our language does not bound us to only understand concepts that are familiar within our own language. Although Rosch’s finding contradicts the concept of determinism in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it does not fully disprove the notion of influence on though of a language.
To continue the discussion on color in language and thought, we will examine another study which favors the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that states that though can in fact be influenced by certain aspects of a language. A study done by Winawer et al. (2007) examines how two different words for the color blue (dark blues: “siniy” and light blues: “goluboy”) in the Russian language influence the speaker’s perception and discrimination of these colors. The study found that Russian speakers were faster to discriminate between colors of different categories, one being “siniy” and the other “goluboy,” than they were at discriminating between colors within the same category. However, English speakers did not show this categorical advantage (Winawer et al., 2007). A crucial element to understand from this study is that, it is not the case that English speakers are unable to subdivide blue colors into light and dark but that, the presence of two different words for light and dark categories of blue in Russian gives the speakers the advantage to employ this linguistic ability even when performing a perceptual task that does not require language use (2007). This finding introduces the concept of habitual use of language when performing cognitive tasks, which may impact our thoughts.
For the last section of this paper we will focus on the implications against linguistic relativity. Although I have already mentioned an example that contradicts the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, more specifically on the subject of color, in this paragraph we will discuss a more general view against the notion that language influences thought. Through my experience in college and learning about psychology and language, I have come across people believing in this notion of Eskimos having dozens or even hundreds of words for snow. Logically, when I first heard it, I had no trouble believing this statement, as we all know that Eskimos live in very cold regions where there is a lot of snow. So why wouldn’t they have more words for snow than anyone else? If the way we talk about the world is so closely related to the way we view it then, the Eskimo dilemma should have no logical problems. But after searching of ways to backup the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, I came to find out the truth about the Eskimos and found the opposite of what I was looking for.
“The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” is an article written by Geoffrey Pullum, published in the New York Times in 1991. It disproves the theory that Eskimos have dozens or more words for snow. The article talks about several flaws in this theory including the fact that there are many different languages and dialects that these people we refer to as “Eskimos” use (Pullum, 1991). Another flaw is that linguists have made the mistake of assuming that these dozens of words are in fact different words for snow when they are just different combinations of the root word for “snow” and different inflectional endings plus compound words (1991). In conclusion, this counterargument for the argument of linguistic relativity shows that sometimes, certain aspects of our world view are not as closely related to language as we might have generalized them to be.
This paper strives to support the theory of linguistic relativity which was first proposed by Sapir and Whorf with a summarization of the different findings of researchers, linguists, psychologists and anthropologists all around. With this summarization, I hope to have given you a better understanding of the different implications of this hypothesis and also some evidence against it. In some instances, the ways in which our native language is structured may have an impact on the way we view or interact with our world. In other instances, language and thought seem to be separate processes that have very little interaction with each other. The question of whether language influences thought, to what extent, and in which circumstances, still remains. With this exploration I hope to have made the question more feasible to be understood and answered.
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