Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis*

I must begin this post with an apology to my academic friends, in particular to the linguists in that group. I will be doing a popularized take on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis today, which will not be up to the standards of rigor expected in the ivy covered walls. I do this because I have experienced two real world examples of this linguist theory in my day-to-day wanderings over the past couple of months; each time in the unspoken regions of my mind I was thinking - Benjamin Lee Whorf.

First some background. Today the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is generally referred to as Linguistic Relativity. The theory states very simply that the differences in languages leads to differences in both human experience and thought. Meaning that those speaking (and thinking in) very different languages actually perceive the world differently. Or stated another way, language determines your worldview. That may seem intuitively obvious but I guarantee you that is only because you heard this theory first. Until very recently the predominate linguistic view on this issue was that thought precedes language and at the deepest level all humans think alike.

Perhaps an illustration is in order. Take the statement: John broke the window. Now in english there is an agent of the breakage, that would be John. But in some linguistic cultures agents are not part of the language. Ask a member of that culture about the sentence and they are likely to report something like: the window broke. Who did it is not relevant. Wait you say, so in those cultures John is not responsible? Who's going to pay to fix the window? Well it can be a lot more subtle than that.

Try this one - The orange and blue polar bear. You see him up there at the top, right? You know he is not really orange and blue, it's the light. But what if I told you that bears like that feed at low light; in the fall and spring there are long periods of low sun creating a lot of orange light and bluish shadows. So the statement - orange and blue bear refers not only to the colors but to the observable fact that at those times of day or night the bear might well be hunting for food and therefore more dangerous to cross paths with.

A white bear is a nuisance, a orange-blue bear can kill you. Same bear, different outcome. Good to know the local language and the worldview it conveys.

Yes, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity is a lot more complex than what I have explained. Believe me I know; I had a good friend who was all but obsessed with Whorf for many years and we all heard endless permutations and applications of Whorfian thought.

Now to the incident that prompted this rumination on Mr. Sapir and Mr. Whorf. I was in the Golden Bough bookstore in Mt. Shasta doing some lazy browsing. The staff person and a customer, who was obviously a friend were having a discussion about angels. It was clear to me that they were not going to resolve their differences because despite the fact that they were indeed both speaking english, they did not share a common worldview. I also noticed that their differing takes on reality were completely influenced by how they derived meaning from their own words. As I said they did not share a language in the sense that they assigned the same meaning to the words they were using.

At one point, perhaps 15 minutes into the debate, the staffer was shelving some books which brought him into my aisle and he said:

"What do you think, are there angels or not?"

I gave my dura mater a yawning flex and replied:

"Well I am currently working on a novel in which one of the main characters is an angel."

"So you believe angels are real," said the customer.

"Another one," grumbled the staffer.

"Actually I don't think angels are real, but neither do you," I said, directing my answer at the customer.

"Certainly I do," she protested.

"Well then why do you say believe in angels? Why is it a matter of faith and not fact?"

I never did get to tell them that the reason they would never agree was because they were not speaking the same language and did not share a worldview. It sounded like they were having a discussion but their beliefs did not encompass the possibility of the other person being right.

By the way, just in case the other two people from the other discussion that got me thinking about Sapir and Whorf, just in case they are reading this. There was a correct answer to the question you were debating. It was southwest. And I know one of you thinks they said that, so you should have won the argument. But when you stand on a hilltop and point due north and say "southwest" you can't be completely right; either your finger or your voice is mistaken. But then the entire discussion was about the meaning of direction and you two will never agreed on that. So much linguistic relativity.

Did you get lost just a bit in that last paragraph? Was it the obtuse nature of my writing or was it linguistic relativity?

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