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sapir-whorf hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that how we think is influenced by the language that we speak. It started being widely discussed after the work done by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf in the first half of the twentieth century. The main subject of debate is just how much influence there really is. Benjamin Whorf argued that language and worldview are tightly intertwined. For example, he argued that the Hopi have a different metaphysical worldview which does not conceptualize time as flowing from the past through the present into the future, as the European worldview does; and their language does not contain the words for time that English does. Thus, the English language and the Hopi language are incommensurable. The Hopi worldview cannot be completely expressed in English, and our worldview cannot be fully expressed in their language. In 1929, Edward Sapir argued that "The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached." The concepts that people have, including their metaphysical ontology, is inseparable from the language they speak.

There have been many debates and studies done over the past century into these issues. These have included things such as computer languages, the deaf, translatability, and James Cooke Brown's studies of the artificial language Loglan/Lojban. Some of the strongest arguments against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis came from supporters of Noam Chomsky after the 1950's. One way of studying how language determines worldview is through neuro-linguistic programming, as done by John Grinder. This research program looks into exactly how we use language to form thoughts. While there is still much to learn about these issues, the currently favored idea is that a weaker version of the hypothesis holds than the one that Sapir and Whorf originally supported.

--Jesse Merriman

Sources:
Nicholas, Nick and John Cowan (eds). What Is Lojban? URL = http://www.lojban.org/publications/level0/brochure/lojbanmo.html

Edward Sapir, "The Status of Linguistics as a Science," re-printed in Culture, Language, and Personality, ed. D. G. Mandelbaum, University of California Press, 1958.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 10:12, 15 Apr 2004 revision, URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir-Whorf_hypothesis

Benjamin Lee Whorf, "Science and Linguistics" in Language, Thought, and Reality, ed. John Carrol, MIT Press, 1956.