Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning

By Michael Byram | Go to book overview

S

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (SWH) is particularly relevant in the discussion of linguistic relativity. It claims, in essence, that a language selects and isolates certain aspects of the 'kaleidoscopic flux of impressions' and thus structures reality for us. The following quotation from Edward Sapir (1884-1939) illustrates this assumption: 'Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection' (Sapir, 1963:162). Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), who was Sapir's student, found this concept of linguistic relativity confirmed when he studied Hopi and discovered that the grammatical categories of Hopi and those of European languages select and highlight different aspects of reality. From this insight he drew the conclusion that each language embodies a different world view:

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.

(Whorf, 1956:213)

From the interpretations of Sapir's and Whorf's writings a strong and weak version of linguistic relativity was developed. The strong version says that we are imprisoned in our language and can only think what our language allows us to think. This claim was vigorously debated in various disciplines from LINGUISTICS to philosophy and PSYCHOLOGY. The philosopher Elmar Holenstein severely criticises the strong version of the SWH and uses the following example to refute it. When, for example, a language such as CHINESE does not possess the second conditional-'If I had wings, I could fly'-the conclusion, according to the strong version, is that the Chinese are not capable of imagining unreal situations. Holenstein argues against this linguistic determinism and relativism by pointing out that one's linguistic competence not only makes it possible to say something in certain ways but also enables one to express the same thing by using metalinguistic and non-linguistic means (Holenstein, 1989:44).

According to the strong version, language does not reflect reality but produces it. The weak version accepts the view that language is not a transparent window to reality but stresses that language itself is influenced by our natural, social and cultural environment. Language and reality are interdependent. This implies that reality is also reflected in the language. In her autobiography Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman shows how in the North American context the terms 'friendship', 'kindness'

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Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vi
  • Editorial Team vii
  • Introduction xiii
  • Acknowledgements xvii
  • Thematic List of Entries xviii
  • A 1
  • B 73
  • C 90
  • D 169
  • E 188
  • F 217
  • G 228
  • H 254
  • Bibliography 259
  • I 288
  • J 316
  • L 325
  • M 394
  • N 436
  • O 452
  • P 458
  • Q 499
  • R 504
  • S 522
  • Bibliography 577
  • T 595
  • Bibliography 643
  • U 644
  • V 658
  • W 673
  • Index 679
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