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Linguistics Handnotes
Linguistics Handnotes
Biplob Prodhan
  • 5 months ago
  • 160
Discuss Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Introduction to Linguistics


Discuss Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. [‘12,‘16]

Ans. In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that there are certain thoughts of an individual in one language that cannot be understood by those who live in another language. The hypothesis states that the way people think is strongly affected by their native languages. It is a controversial theory championed by linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as it came to be called, combines two principles. The first is known as linguistic determinism and it states that language determines the way we think. The second follows from this and is known as linguistic relativity and it states that the distinctions encoded in one language are to found in any other language.

Whorf illustrates his view by taking examples from several languages and in particular from Hopi, an American language. In Hopi, there is one word (masa’ytaka) for everything that files except birds which would include insects, aero planes and pilots. This seems alien to someone used to thinking in English but Whorf argues that it is no stranger than English speakers having one word for many kinds of snow, in contrast to Eskimo, where there are different words for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice slushy snow and so on. In Aztec, a single word covers an even greater range of English nations – snow, cold and ice. When more abstract notions are considered, the differences become yet more complex. For example, Hopi lacks a concept of time seen as a dimension; there are no form corresponding to English tenses but there are a series of form which make it possible to talk about various durations from the speaker’s point of view. Whorf argues that it would be very difficult for a Hopi and an English physicist to understand each other’s thinking, given the major differences between the languages.

Examples such as made the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis very plausible but in its strongest form, it is unlikely to have any adherents now. The fact that successful translations between language can be made is a major argument against it as is the fact that the conceptual uniqueness of a language such as Hopi can nonetheless be explained using English. There are some conceptual differences between cultures due to language is undeniable but this is not to say that the differences are so great that mutual comprehension is impossible. One language may make many words to say what another language says in a single word but in the end, the circumlocution can make the point.

Similarly, it does not follow that because a language lacks a word, its speakers cannot grasp the concept. Several languages have few words or numerals. For example, Australian aboriginal languages are often restricted to a few general words one and two. In such cases, it is sometimes said that the people lack the concept of number that aborigines have not the intelligence to count as it was once put. But this is not so as is shown when these speaker learn English as a second language, their ability to count and calculate is quite comparable to that of English native speakers.

However, a weaker version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is generally accepted which states that language may not determine the way we think but it does influence the way we perceive and remember and it affects the case with which we perform mental tasks. Several experiments have shown that people recall things more easily if the things correspond to readily available words or phrases. People certainly find it easier to make a conceptual distinction if it neatly corresponds to word available in their language. Therefore, some salvation for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis can be found in these studies which are carried out within developing field of psycholinguistics.

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