Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

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The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was put forth by linguist-anthropologist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf, and is today used and refuted in many debates, from linguistics theory to political correctness. The hypothesis states that there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories and patterns of a language, and the worldview and structures of thought and behavior of its speakers. Some understand this to mean that because different societies are fundamentally different, it is impossible to judge negatively or positively the practices and beliefs of any one.


'Scores of words for snow'

The roots of this idea lie in the work of Franz Boas, Whorf's teacher. Boas was a forerunner of the relativism argument, and noted repeatedly during fieldwork with different Native American groups that all their worldviews and linguistic structure differed enormously. tapir and Whorf put forward theoretically challenging arguments, but it later transpired that Whorf's fieldwork left plenty to be desired. A mistaken interpretation in his work is often used by non-experts in favor of the hypothesis. This holds that Inuits have scores, possibly hundreds, of words for snow, indicating a profoundly different worldview. The raw data for this claim has been thoroughly discredited by now, notably by Geoffrey Pullum.

Language and politics

Yet the hypothesis has its proponents, particularly those who believe that political, economic, racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination cannot be truly weeded out of people's minds until it is out of language, with all its residual and subliminal influence. This gave rise to the politically correct language movement, where historically offensive and loaded descriptives were replaced by phrases such as African American, gay, and differently abled. Support for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has enabled civil language, if not civil thought.

Criticism and competing theories

Some argue that this concept presents language as a prison, allowing individuals no independent utterance, assessment, or interaction. But this extreme interpretation, sometimes called linguistic determinism, misses the nuances of Whorf's principle of linguistic relativity. He argued that actions and thought were mediated by language and society, not that they were solely contingent on language. Research on communities of deaf children and sign language bear out the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to some extent.

The major competing theory comes from the work of Noam Chomsky, who holds that language and its deep structure are both innate and universal. Today the main debate is between writers such as Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct) and George Lakoff. Pinker describes the human ability to learn linguistic structures as inborn, though flexible to different degrees, while Lakoff discusses the implications and deep-seated effects of language use, especially the metaphors used in politics and economics. Donna Haraway discusses the relationship between language, social power, and science.

Language and control in fiction

Interestingly, much fiction which engages with these ideas is in the realm of fantasy or [sci-fi]], with extreme cases of mind control though language. The best known exploration of linguistic determinism is George Orwell's 1984, with its doublespeak and thoughtcrime. Frank Herbert's Dune and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash explore the consequences of linguistic programming. The science fiction novels of Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy more subtly explore the dangers as well as redemptive possibilities of these ideas.