Sociolinguistics

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Sapir-Whorf language theory

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

According to this hypothesis, the language we speak makes us think and perceive things differently.Traditionally, the human being has understood language as a means of communication through which it is possible to establish a link with the world and allows us to express what we think or feel. 

This conception sees language as a means of expressing what is already inside. However, for Sapir-Whorf language theory, it is of much greater importance , having a much more important role in organizing, thinking or even perceiving the world.

And although the relationship between thought and language has been a field of study that has received much interest from psychologists and linguists, few theories have gone so far when it comes to relating these two worlds.

Two versions of the Sapir-Whorf theory

With the passage of time and the criticisms and demonstrations that seemed to indicate that the effect of language on thought is not as modulating perception as the theory initially stipulated, Sapir-Whorf language theory has undergone some subsequent modifications . That is why we can talk about two versions of this theory.

1. Strong hypothesis: linguistic determinism

The initial vision of Sapir-Whorf’s language theory had a very deterministic and radical vision regarding the role of language. For the strong Whorphian hypothesis, language completely determines our judgment , capacity for thought and perception, giving them form and even considering that thought and language are essentially the same.

Under this premise, a person whose language does not contemplate a certain concept will not be able to understand or distinguish it. As an example, a people that does not have any word for the color orange will not be able to distinguish a stimulus from another whose only difference is color. In the case of those who do not include temporal notions in their speech, they cannot distinguish between what happened a month ago and what happened twenty years ago, or between present, past or future.

Evidences

Several subsequent studies have shown that Sapir-Whorf’s theory of language is not correct, at least in its deterministic conception , carrying out experiments and research that reflect its falsehood at least partially.

Ignorance of a concept does not imply that it cannot be created within a given language, which would not be possible under the premise of the strong hypothesis. While it is possible that a concept does not have a specific correlate in another language, it is possible to generate alternatives.

Continuing with the examples of previous points, if the strong hypothesis were correct, people who do not have a word to define a color would not be able to distinguish between two equal stimuli except in that aspect , since they could not perceive the differences. However, experimental studies have shown that they are fully capable of distinguishing these stimuli from others of different color.

Similarly, we may not have a translation for the term umami, but if we are able to detect that it is a taste that leaves a velvety sensation in the mouth, leaving a long and subtle aftertaste.

Also other linguistic theories, such as Chomsky’s, have studied and indicated that although language is acquired through a long learning process, there are partially innate mechanisms that before language emerges as such allows us to observe communicative aspects and even the existence of concepts in babies, being common to most known peoples.

2. Weak hypothesis: linguistic relativism

The initial deterministic hypothesis was, over time, modified before the evidence that the examples used to defend it were not completely valid nor did they demonstrate a total determination of thought by language. 

However, the theory of language Sapir-Whorf has developed a second version, according to which although the language does not determine per se the thought and perception, but it is an element that helps to shape and influence the type of content to which more attention is paid.

For example, it is proposed that the characteristics of the spoken language may influence the way in which certain concepts are conceived or the attention that certain nuances of the concept receive to the detriment of others.

Evidences

This second version has found a certain empirical demonstration, since it reflects that the fact that it is difficult for a person to conceptualize a certain aspect of reality because their language does not contemplate it does not focus on such aspects.

For example, while a Spanish speaker tends to pay close attention to tense, others like Turkish tend to focus on who performs the action, or English on the spatial position. Thus, each language favors highlighting specific aspects , which when acting in the real world can cause slightly different reactions and responses. For example, it will be easier for the Spanish speaker to remember when something has happened than where he is asked to remember it.

It can also be observed when classifying objects. While some peoples will use the form to catalog objects, others will tend to associate things by their material or color.

The fact that there is no specific concept in language means that although we are able to perceive it, we do not tend to pay attention to it. If for us and our culture it is not important if what happened happened a day or a month ago, if you ask us directly when it happened it will be difficult for us to give an answer since it is something we have never thought about. Or if we are presented with something with a strange characteristic, such as a color that we have never seen, it can be perceived but will not be decisive when making distinctions unless coloring is an important element in our thinking.

Versions of the Sapir and Whorf hypothesis

The Sapir and Whorf hypothesis talks about the influence of language on perception and conceptualization, and much of the scientific community supports it. However, there is some discrepancy in specifying the degree of such influence; this derives in two versions of the same hypothesis: a “hard” and a “soft” version.

Hard version of the Sapir and Whorf hypothesis

The toughest version starts from the basis that a person’s language will completely condition their interpretation of reality . From this position, language is not seen as a perceptual filter, but rather as the building material. Thus, what is not contemplated in the language could neither be perceived nor conceptualized. An example of this could be that a language did not have the color orange defined, and by not having it in the language, people with that language could not perceive the color orange.

It is a  fairly extreme hypothesis , although there has been some scientific evidence, it seems unlikely that language has such a decisive force in the construction of reality. For this reason, many psychologists began using another softer or softer version.

Soft version of the Sapir and Whorf hypothesis

From this perspective we find a more cautious and less extreme Sapir and Whorf hypothesis. Here the language would act as a filter of perception, so it would slightly influence it and the conceptualization of reality . This shows us that two people of different languages ​​can differ significantly in their way of seeing and facing their context.

However, language would not be able to alter reality to the limits set forth in the toughest version of the Sapir and Whorf hypothesis. Even so, the effects that language can have on influencing the construction of different interpretations seem very important seem interesting.

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