Matter of language

We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir, 1921, p. 75)

This sentence expresses the central ideas of the "strong" form of "Sapir-Whorf" or "linguistic relativity" hypothesis. The originator of this hypothesis was Wilhelm von Humboldt. The following are some of his ideas:

Every language receives a specific originality through that of the nation, and has on the latter a uniformly determining reverse effect. (Humboldt, 1999, p. 152; Humboldt, 1836, p. CCXIV)

Each language draws a circle around the people to whom it adheres which it is possible for the individual to escape only by stepping into a different one. The learning of a foreign language should therefore mean the gaining of a new standpoint toward one's world-view, and it does this in fact to a considerable degree, because each language contains the entire conceptual web and mental images of a part of humanity. If it is not always purely felt as such, the reason is only that one so frequently projects one's own world-view, in fact one's own speech habits, onto a foreign language. (Humboldt, 1963, p. 294; Humboldt, 1836, p. LXXV)

Humboldt is saying that languages unite speakers because each language has its "genius" (Sprachgefhl) that differentiates it and its speakers from the languages and peoples of other nations, but, at the same time, every individual uses language in a different way that "is rooted in the original cast of mind" (a very Herder-like remark). The "genius" of a language captures a world-view that makes it difficult for the non-native speaker to engage with. (1)

And here I would like to mention that I disagree with the above statements and that the weak formation of the linguistic relativity, first introduced by Benjamin Lee Whorf, seems to me more convincing and obvious and the reasons for having that opinion will be later described in detail after looking closer to the key ideas of the weak version of the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

The statement that "thinking is a matter of LANGUAGE" is an incorrect generalization of the more nearly correct idea that "thinking is a matter of different tongues." (Whorf, 1956, p. 239 [Whorf, 1941])

This clearly allows for an individual to accommodate different ways of thinking by learning different languages and the world-views of their speakers (so far as this is possible). It is not even necessary to speak the other person's language, simply to know about its structure (Whorf, 1956, p. 263 [Whorf, 1942]). In this, Whorf differs from Sapir and it is clear evidence that Whorf himself believed in only a weak form of the "Whorfian hypothesis". The weak version of the "Whorfian hypothesis" is that a language directs its speakers toward certain aspects of perceived phenomena - but, because perception is independent of language, other aspects of phenomena can be commented upon, if desired, by circumlocution, or by the novel use of a language expression.(1)

This theory is still a subject of debate within anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and other fields of inquiry for well over a century.

"It's like the chicken and egg question. Do we learn to think before we speak, or does language shape our thoughts? New experiments with five-month-olds favor the conclusion that thought comes first.

"Infants are born with a language-independent system for thinking about objects," says Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard. "These concepts give meaning to the words they learn later." - (6)

Another argument against the strong version, with which I came up myself and later found in (5) is the following idea: all people have occasional difficulty expressing themselves due to constraints in the language, and are conscious that the language is not adequate for what they mean. Perhaps they say or write something, and then think "that's not quite what I meant to say" or perhaps they cannot find a good way to explain a concept they understand to a novice. This makes it clear that what is being thought is not a set of words, because one can understand a concept without being able to express it in words.(5)

While reading different articles about strong version of the linguistic relativity I noticed that most of the authors forget the fact that language is not static. The authors talk about language as if it was created by a person who once sat and wrote all the words and rules of that language and after that his compatriots started to use it and their thoughts were influenced and were formed according to that language. The authors forget that all languages were created and developed during hundreds of years and still continue to develop and just like the culture of the community they reflect the religious views, environmental conditions and the mentality in general specific to a particular community. If we will start to pay more attention on that simple fact that language is not static, then we will be able to understand the relationship between the language and thought more easily. If it was the language that determines the thought, then we would still speak the language of the ancient man and human evolution would never happen. Factors such as the divergence of people's ideas and world views and even difference of geographic conditions caused the creation of different languages, which were suited and designed in such way that reflected also the mentality of the community.

I believe that humans mind analyzes the foreign language not only by comparing it to his native language, but also according to his views. For example, when I first learned how English refer to their pets, which is by he or she, I was very surprised and thought that it is a very good idea. While at the same time my Armenian friend said that it is a stupid idea and she never got used to that rule. This simple example indicates that language is not so powerful to be able to change our views and the way we think.

I think that if we want to understand the extent of the influence of the language we must first of all examine the world views held in common throughout that community. Mentality of the next generation of that community will be influenced as much as it will share the ideas and views of it's previous generation and those standards and principles of the language which are not "cordial" to them will be changed. Even the geographical conditions and climate of the region where the community habits influences the way the community forms it's language and thus Inuit people will have 8 different manes for the snow as long as they will live in Arctic regions with the same climate and it will have the same importance for them as it has now. Otherwise after some time this words will be unintentionally forgotten and ejected from their language.

The relation of the thought and language can be compared with the relation of the dance and it's corresponding costume. I remember myself as 13 years old girl attending dance classes and how it happened once that I had to dance Spanish Flamenco with the costume of the Russian dance because I forgot my flamencas (name of the dress). It not only looked very funny from the side, but it was also very uncomfortable for me to dance and that was my worst Flamenco performance I ever had. Just like the Spanish red flamencas reflects the spirit of the Flamenco dance and transfers it to the dancer, in similar way languages are formed and tuned in such way that they exhibit the spirit of the community and it is logical to think that the speakers thoughts will not stay unaffected.

As Manuel noted, the grammar of the Spanish language is just like the Spanish people. It is very "flexible", you can change the word order of the sentence as you wish and that will not affect the meaning. But at the same time if we look at the German language we will see that it is very structured and somehow more complicated and the same thing can be said about German people. Some people may argue that it is the language that caused Germans to be structured. If it was true then those Germans who would start to speak Spanish would be "flexible". This does not seem to me logical, even if it will somehow affect the way the German thinks and acts, it will never be able to change his DNA.

Summarizing all the ideas expressed above I want to note that we do not claim that language has no influence on the way we form our thoughts, but because , as put by Manuel, it is a "consequence of our thoughts" it will never be so powerful to be able to absolutely determine or limit our understanding of world. Languages are like glasses that people put, but which are neither transparent and nor so powerful as "virtual reality glasses" to be able to produce or change reality.

Sources and Works Cited

  1. Keith Allan: Vantage theory and linguistic relativity
  2. Martin Putz and Marjolin H. Verspoor: Exploration in Linguistic Relativity
  3. JJ Gumperz and SC Levinson,: Rethinking Linguistic Relativity.
  4. Vyvyan Evans and Melanie Green, Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction
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