Ask A Linguist FAQ: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Hence the hypothesis is referred to as the principle of linguistic relativity.

Ask A Linguist FAQ The Sapir-Whorf ..

Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's work (1969) on basic color terms didmuch to raise the quality of empirical work on the linguisticrelativity hypothesis. And together with much subsequent work itstrongly suggests that the strongest, across-the-board versions of thelinguistic relativity hypothesis are false when it comes to colorlanguage and color cognition. We now know that colors may be a ratherspecial case, however, for although there is nothing in the physics ofcolor that suggests particular segmentations of the spectrum, theopponent-process theory of color vision, now well confirmed, tells usthat there are neurophysiological facts about human beings thatinfluence many of the ways in which we perceive colors. We don't knowof anything comparable innate mechanisms that would channel thoughtabout social traits or biological classification of diseases insimilarly deep grooves. There may well be cross-cultural similaritiesin the ways human beings think about these things, but we can'tconclude this from the work on color.

So what you really need to compare is claims of linguistic relativism and universal grammar (UG).

Known as the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” this theory ..

Despite this belief he strongly rejected the idea of linguistic determinism, claiming that it would be naive to believe that his experience of the world is solely dependent on the pattern and type of language he spoke.

♦ His vague notion of linguistic relativity was taken up and studied further by his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Interesting versions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis embodytwo claims:

are the same length, I cannot help seeing the line on the left aslonger than the line on the right. I know the lengths are thesame, but my visual module (or models) does not. It is encapsulated;this information can't get through to it, so it can't influence how Isee the figure. If this is so, then linguistic information could notpenetrate any vision modules, and so versions of linguistic relativismwhich hold (as most do) that our language can influence how we seethings is wrong.

Any serious discussion of the linguistic relativity hypothesisrequires us to answer three questions


A Case Study of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis

A linguistic relativity hypothesis says that some particularaspect of language influences some particular aspect ofcognition. Many different aspects of language could, for all weknow, influence many different aspects of cognition. This means that astudy showing that some particular aspect of language (e.g., the colorlexicon of a language) does (or does not) influence some particularaspect of cognition (e.g., recognition memory of colors) does not tellus whether other aspects of language (e.g., the lexicon for spatialrelations) influence other aspects of cognition (e.g., spatialreasoning). It does not even tell us whether the single aspect oflanguage we focused on affects any aspects of thought besides the onewe studied, or whether other aspects of language influence the singleaspect of thought we examined.

What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? - Twinword, Inc.

In light of the vast literature on linguistic relativity hypotheses,one would expect that a good deal of careful experimental work had beendone on the topic. It hasn't. Often the only evidence cited infavor of such hypotheses is to point to a difference between twolanguages and assert that it adds up to a difference in modes ofthought. But this simply assumes what needs to be shown, namely thatsuch linguistic differences give rise to cognitivedifferences. On the other hand, refutations of the hypothesis oftentarget implausibly extreme versions of it or proceed as thoughrefutations of it in one domain (e.g., color language and colorcognition) show that it is false across the board.

Linguistic Relativity and Language: You Are What You …

For the most part discussions of the linguistic relativityhypothesis have focused on grammar and lexicon as independentvariables. Thus, many of Whorf's claims, e.g., his claims about the wayHopi thought about time, were based on (what he took to be) large-scaledifferences between Hopi and Standard Average European that includedgrammatical and lexical differences (e.g., 1956, p. 158).Subsequence research by Ekkehart Malotki (e.g., 1983) and otherssuggests that Whorf's more dramatic claims were false, but theimportant point here is that the most prominent versions of thelinguistic relativity hypothesis involved large-scale features oflanguage.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis - SlideShare

Much of the most rigorous investigation of the linguistic relativityhypothesis involves color language and color cognition. In the 1950sand 60s, this was an area where linguistic relativity seemed quiteplausible. On the one hand, there is nothing in the physics of light(e.g., in facts about surface spectral reflectances) that suggestsdrawing boundaries between colors at one place rather than another; inthis sense our segmentations of the spectrum are arbitrary. On the onehand, it was well known that different languages had color terms thatsegmented the color spectrum at different places. So since nothing inthe physics of color could determine how humans thought about color, itseemed natural to hypothesis that color cognition followed the grooveslaid down by color language.