Swoyer (2003). The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.

Swoyer, C. (2003). The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Retrieved January 6, 2018, from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/relativism/supplement2.html

“Many thinkers have urged that large differences in language lead to large differences in experience and thought. They hold that each language embodies a worldview, with quite different languages embodying quite different views, so that speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways. This view is sometimes called the _Whorf hypothesis_ or the _Whorf-Sapir hypothesis_, after the linguists who made it famous. But the label _linguistic relativity_, which is more common today, has the advantage that makes it easier to separate the hypothesis from the details of Whorf’s views, which are an endless subject of exegetical dispute …” (¶ 3)

[“A Preliminary Statement of the Hypothesis” …]

[“1. History of the Hypothesis” …]

[Sapir, 1929 …]

“‘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’ (1929, p. 209).” (¶ 16)

“The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached’ (p. 209).” (¶ 20)

[Whorf, 1940 …]

“‘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’ (p. 213).” (¶ 25)

“‘… no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free’ (p. 214).” (¶ 26)

“The view that language completely determines how we think is often called _linguistic determinism_.” (¶ 30)

[“1.1 Linguistic Relativism and Metaphysics” …]

[“2. The Many Versions of Linguistic Relativism” …]

“But what is easy to say in one language may be harder to say in a second, and this may make it easier or more natural or more common for speakers of the first language to think in a certain way than for speakers of the second language to do so. A concept or category may be more available in some linguistic communities than in others (e.g., Brown, 1956, pp. 307ff).” (¶ 39)

“Different languages have different lexicons (vocabularies), but the important point here is that the lexicons of different languages may classify things in different ways. For example, the color lexicons of some languages segment the color spectrum at different places.” (¶ 42)

“It is increasingly clear that context plays a vital role in the use and understanding of language, and it is possible that differences in the way speakers of different languages use their languages in concrete settings affects their mental life.” (¶ 45)

[“2.1 Testing the Linguistic Relativity Hypotheses” …]

[“2.2 Many Versions of the Hypothesis have not been Tested” …]

“… there is increasing evidence that the mind is, to at least some degree, modular, with different cognitive modules doing domain specific work (e.g., parsing syntax, recognizing faces) and processing different kinds of information in different kinds of ways. If this is right, there is less reason to expect that findings about the influence of language on one aspect of cognition will generalize to other aspects.” (¶ 50)

[“3. Innateness and Linguistic Universals” …]

[“3.1 Poverty of the Stimulus Arguments” …]

“The point is quite general: if the input, or data stream, is exiguous then (barring incredible luck) it is only possible for someone to arrive at the right theory about the data if they have some built-in inductive biases, some predispositions to form one kind of theory rather than another. And since any child can learn any human language, the innate endowment must put constraints on which of the countless logically possible languages are humanly possible.” (¶ 57)

[“3.2 Modularity” …]

“Fodor holds that there is no special module for higher mental processes and, indeed, that we are a long way from having any account of how thinking and reasoning work (e.g., 2000). If this is right, then for all we know now, some aspects of linguistic relativism could be right.” (¶ 61)

[“4. Morals for other Independent Variables: Modularity and Encapsulation” …]

“Such questions can only be answered with care once we specify which aspects of an independent variable, say culture, influence which aspects of thought and what form that influence takes.” (¶ 66)

Selected References

  • Brown, R. W. (1956). Language and categories. In J. S. Bruner, J. J. Goodnow, & G. A. Austin, A study of thinking (pp. 247-312). Oxford, England: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Fodor, J. A. (2000). The mind doesn’t work that way: The scope and limits of computational psychology. MIT press.
  • Malotki, E. (1983). Hopi time: A linguistic analysis of the temporal concepts in the Hopi language (Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs, Vol. 20). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Sapir, E. (1929). The status of linguistics as a science. Language 5(4), 207-214.
  • Whorf, B. L. (1940). Science and linguistics (pp. 207-219). Bobbs-Merrill.


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