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Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

August 12, 2009

Hello again,

I sometimes think that in our desire to teach, we lose the fascination of language as a concept. Of course, concepts may not be of much practical use in the classroom. But I do believe that we need to consider the phenomenon of language in the abstract if we are to understand why some groups of students find it difficult to...

...acquire some aspects of English, while others have problems in different areas. In other words, if we consider language as a concept we begin to see the diversity of linguistic architecture among our multifarious students.

I think Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf offer the most fascinating path into this area. Sapir said:

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.

His student, Benjamin Whorf, elaborated:

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.

Of course scholars have argued in favour and against their theory, but I see in political spin a strong belief that people’s perceptions can be shaped by language, as indeed did George Orwell in his novel, 1984. One of the most offensive phrases of recent years in my view has been “collateral damage”. It sounds like a small side effect of war. If we start thinking that way, do we not start to lose our perception of the real horror in which defenceless civilians are slaughtered and start to see it as an ‘acceptable’ consequence of warfare?

Another phrase that seems to try to shape our thinking is “the war on terror”. We can really only wage war against a known enemy. We certainly will want to defend ourselves against terrorism and do our best prevent it, but it is not possible to conduct a war against it. Such linguistic shaping of our perceptions has contributed to an increase of tension in society, as one community looks with suspicion at another, as definable groups become associated with ‘terror’.

Doesn’t the whole issue of political correctness relate to this idea? If I am told I may not use certain language, is that not an attempt to shape my though processes? In a recent article I read how Susan Boyle, a competitor in a talent show, was constantly being denigrated as a "spinster". How exactly is this denigration? What other word in English exists to describe an unmarried woman?

I’d be interested in knowing what you think.

Sapir, E. 1921. Language. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
Whorf, B. 1956. Language, Thought & Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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  1. MrDoc Says:

    A language by itself can't model the way you see the world. It's just a tool, and, as any tool, can be used to build or to cause damage.

    I think blaming sentences by their form is just as naif as believing that 'collateral damages' are just small brushes: just watching less TV and thinking more might help, I don't know about the impact on radio when there was no TV, but may be Churchill or Hitler knew.

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