Academic journal article SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics

Language and Its Influence on How We Understand Reality

Academic journal article SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics

Language and Its Influence on How We Understand Reality

Article excerpt

1. The "hypothesis"

"Not a scientifically testable thesis" (van Troyer 1994: 3), "identified with scholarly irresponsibility, fuzzy thinking, lack of rigor and even immorality" (Lakoff 1987: 304), but also "an idea which has held a perennial fascination for linguists of diverse schools" (Sampson 1980: 81), expressed by a man who comes "once in blue moon" and who was able to grasp "the relationship between events which have hitherto seemed quite separate" and gave "mankind a new dimension of knowledge" (Chase 1959: v). The principle of linguistic relativity, Whorfianism, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as it is commonly called, is one the most criticized and yet one of the most inspiring ideas in the field of linguistics.

To see how many problems and doubts it creates, one should start with the very name of the aforementioned idea. "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" is in fact a misnomer, since Edward Sapir, as pointed out by Sampson (1980), was not one of the proponents of the hypothesis, but rather a mentor of Whorf's, whose general approach the latter adopted. The term was coined by J. B. Carrol, the author of the introduction to the collection of Whorf's works, printed in 1956.

What is more, the hypothesis is not a hypothesis; not in the scientific sense of this word. As van Troyer (1994) rightly observes, it has never been formulated as one and therefore, for some, it is not possible to test it experimentally.

In addition, it is hard to say that Whorf, with or without the help of Sapir, was the first to claim linguistic relativity, since the idea that the language we use affects our worldview and the way we think had already been proposed by the scholars like Johann Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt, who lived at the turn of the 19th century. (1)

Nonetheless, the idea that the thinking is dependent on language and that the language influences our understanding of the world around us was developed by and is usually associated with Benjamin Lee Whorf.

2. Benjamin Lee Whorf and his work

Benjamin Lee Whorf was born in 1897 and died in 1941 at the age of 44, but despite the shortness of his life, his biography is truly "(...) a matter of more than passing interest", as J.B. Carrol suggests (Carroll 1959: 1). Whorf became a chemical engineer and combined working as a fire insurance engineer with studying the languages of the Mayas, Aztecs of Mexico and the Hopi from Arizona. His interest in many fields, meticulousness and creativity resulted in his being not only valued in his profession but also recognized as a scholar, even though he had never had an advanced degree.

Interestingly, it was the discoveries he made in the field of fire insurance that made him realize the connection between the language and the behaviour of its speakers.

One of the tasks he was given when he worked in the insurance company was to establish the most frequent causes of fires by analysing hundreds of reports. He expected that the causes would be only of physical nature like, for instance, wrong type of insulation or defective wiring, but it turned out that what also mattered was how people named certain things and situations. For example, around a storage of 'gasoline drums', people were careful and paid attention to the safety regulations. However, around a storage of 'empty gasoline drums' people were much more careless, they smoked and tossed cigarette butts, as if forgetting that empty gasoline drums are even more dangerous than the full ones, since they contain highly flammable, explosive gas.

Whorf suspected that the reason of the workers' irresponsible behaviour was the fact that they used the word 'empty', which may be understood in two ways. It might be synonymous with the phrases 'without meaning' or 'without content' or 'useless', but we also use it when we examine if a container contains anything. The intended meaning of the word 'empty' in the case of the drums was that they did not have their content, their "meaning"the gasoline, but unconsciously the workers applied the second use pattern of the word 'empty' and wrongly came to the conclusion that the drums did not contain anything at all (Whorf in Carroll 1959: 135). …

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