The relationship between the language we speak and the thoughts we envision is rather hazy. In many ways it is like trying to remember a dream. You almost come to a conclusion, but you can’t quite finalise that last detail. Of the many sides to this debate, I aim to detail the belief that language determines or influences thought. This train of thought is often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Before delving into the two forms of this hypothesis, it is important to note that the titular Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf are not the first to propose this argument, but they are arguably the most strongly associated with it.
The first form we’re going to look at is the strong form, also known as ‘linguistic determinism’ (or, more affectionately, the ‘prison house’ view of Language). Edward Sapir is considered a proponent of this form of the hypothesis, and he’s quoted as saying “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” (1958. P. 69). To dumb this down a bit (largely so that I can understand it), he’s basically saying that because different languages are, well, different, they can’t all possibly represent the same concepts. Let’s take a look at this in context.
Take an experiment that involved speakers from two different countries, straight lines, and squares. Then, according to McWhorter (2014: 5), “show an English speaker – who says a long time – a line slowly lengthening toward an end point on screen, and then a square slowly filling up from bottom to top, and she’s better at guessing how long it will take the line to hit the end than for the square to be full”. Taking this experiment at face value, it seems obvious that linguistic determinism is relevant, and exists in the real world. To further support this, observations of Brazil’s Piraha tribe have shown that they don’t have numbers, and they also do not count. A proponent of linguistic determinism could reasonably argue that the lack of numbers in the Pirahas’ language has determined their thoughts (or should I say, lack of thoughts) involving numbers.
However, unfortunately for linguistic determinism, we don’t have to stop there. While there are differences in the times it took for different language speakers to guess how long the line or square takes to reach a certain point, these differences are practically insignificant. In fact, they’re so insignificant that it’s difficult for me to present it as an argument without feeling dishonest. We’ll come back to the Piraha tribe momentarily.
The second form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is known as ‘linguistic relativism’. Benjamin Whorf is strongly associated with this form (though some critics argue that he is misunderstood – the arguments never end!). Linguistic relativism argues that languages only influences thought, rather than determining it. Whorf states that “[t]he 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” (1940: 213-14). Whorf is basically saying that as different concepts become apparent to us, it is the linguistic systems in our mind that sort and decipher them. This means that while language does not govern our thoughts, it organises and therefore influences them.
Earlier I mentioned the Piraha tribe. Well, it turns out “that the Pirahas’ lack of counting and their lack of number words are both caused by a cultural taboo against unnecessary generalisations beyond the here and now” (Everett, 2012. P. 256). To put it simply, while a linguistic determinist might (absurdly) argue that the Piraha can’t conceive the concept of ‘quantity’ because of their lack of words for it, a linguistic relativist might argue that their cultural taboo of generalisation has influenced the thought processes in their cognitive linguistic systems which in turn influenced their language, and their thoughts about quantity.
In case you haven’t guessed already, of the two forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I (and pretty much everyone else) support the weaker form, as the implications of the strong form (1984, anyone?) are just plain unreasonable. Unfortunately, I have a problem with linguistic relativism too. Earlier I made a rather odd comparison to dreams. Well that’s because nobody can provide concrete evidence for the weak form. Any evidence or claims provided are often weak, and are themselves, debatable, and it just doesn’t leave a curious linguist with any satisfaction, a bit like eating at McDonalds.
It’s always close to convincing me, but nothing more.
JACK HOLLAND, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK