Lucy (2015). Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. (International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences.)

Lucy, J. A. (2015). Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In J. D. Wright (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition) (pp. 903–906). Oxford: Elsevier.

“… discourse-level concerns with how patterns of language use in cultural context can affect thought.” (p 903)

[“Nature and Scope of the Hypothesis” (p 903) …]

“The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, refers to the proposal that the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality.” (p 903)

“Analytically, linguistic relativity as an issue stands between two others: a semiotic-level concern with how speaking any natural language whatsoever might influence the general potential for human thinking (i.e., the general role of natural language in the evolution or development of human intellectual functioning), and a functional- or discourse-level concern with how using any given language code in a particular way might influence thinking (i.e., the impact of special discursive practices such as schooling and literacy on formal thought).” (p 903)

“… languages differ significantly in their _interpretations_ of experienced reality — both what they select for representation and how they arrange it. Second, language interpretations have _influences_ on thought about reality more generally — whether at the individual or cultural level.” (p 903)

“… linguistic relativity, that is the proposal that our thought may in some way be taken as relative to the language spoken.” (p 904)

[“Historical Development of the Hypothesis” (p 904) …]

“Working within the US anthropological tradition of Franz Boas and stimulated by the diversity and complexity of Native American languages, Edward Sapir (1949) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956) reinvigorated and reoriented investigation of linguistic relativity in several ways (Lucy, 1992a; Lee, 1997). First, they advocated intensive first-hand scientific investigation of exotic languages; second, they focused on structures of meaning, rather than on formal grammatical process such as inflection; and third, they approached these languages within a framework of egalitarian regard.” (p 904)

[Whorf’s view …]

“In his view, each language refers to an infinite variety of experiences with a finite array of formal categories …” (p 904)

“Whorf argued that these linguistic structures influence habitual thought by serving as a guide to the interpretation of experience. … Whorf argues that by influencing everyday habitual thought in this way, language can come to influence cultural institutions generally, including philosophical and scientific activity.” (p 904)

“In his empirical research Whorf showed that the Hopi and English languages treat ‘time’ differently, and that this difference corresponds to distinct cultural orientations toward temporal notions. … Finally, grouping referents and concepts as formally ‘the same’ for the purposes of speech has led speakers to group those referents and concepts as substantively ‘the same’ for action generally, as evidenced by related cultural patterns of belief and behavior he describes.” (p 904)

[“Empirical Research on the Hypothesis” (p 904) …]

“Although the Sapir-Whorf proposal has had wide impact on thinking in the humanities and social sciences, it has not been extensively investigated empirically. … [page break] … Nonetheless, a variety of modern initiatives have stimulated renewed interest in mounting empirical assessments of the hypothesis.” (p 904-905)

“Contemporary empirical efforts can be classed into three broad types, depending on which of the three key terms in the hypothesis they take as their point of departure: language,
reality, or thought (Lucy, 1997).” (p 905)

[“Future Prospects” (p 905) …]

“The continued relevance of the linguistic relativity issue seems assured by the same impulses found historically: the patent relevance of language to human sociality and intellect, the reflexive concern with the role of language in scholarly practice, and the practical encounter with linguistic diversity. To this we must add the increasing concern with the unknown implications for human thought of the impending loss of many if not most of the world’s languages (Fishman, 1982).” (p 905)

Selected References

  • Fishman, J., 1982. Whorfianism of the third kind: Ethnolinguistic diversity as a worldwide societal asset (The Whorfian Hypothesis: Varieties of validation, confirmation, and disconfirmation II). Language in Society 11, 1–14.
  • Lee, P., 1997. The Whorf Theory Complex: A Critical Reconstruction. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
  • Lucy, J.A., 1992a. Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  • Lucy, J.A., 1997. Linguistic relativity. Annual Review of Anthropology 26, 291–312.
  • Sapir, E., 1949. In: Mandelbaum, D.G. (Ed.), The Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. University California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  • Whorf, B.L., 1956. In: Carroll, J.B. (Ed.), Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
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