Linguistic relativism explanations on the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis

by Jens Holze Studiengang Medienbildung MB 04 – 5. Semester 20/03/2007

Understanding Media – Dr. Klaus Sachs-Hombach Otto-von-Guericke Universität Magdeburg

Table of Contents
1.Introduction.........................................................................................................................3 2.The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis...............................................................................................4 3.The novel “1984”................................................................................................................6 3.1 About the novel...........................................................................................................6 3.2 Newspeak.....................................................................................................................6 3.3 From Reality................................................................................................................9 4.Conclusion.........................................................................................................................10


1. Introduction
Thoughts are said to be free. Actually they are considered to follow a unique untouchable freedom which is a very important premise in the modern world. The freedom of speech which has a very high value in democracy may e.g. be restricted for certain reasons. In Germany it is prohibited by law to deny in public that the holocaust during the second world war actually happened. You may think so but you are not allowed to say it. Other countries have other laws for similar reasons. So the freedom of speech is limited while the freedom of thought can't be limited since nobody knows what other people think. So even the people living under a dictatorship where most of the human rights are ignored are free to think whatever they want. They aren't controlled by anyone or anything. But are they really? There is a certain theory in linguistic which is called 'Linguistic relativism' that was mainly developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and is therefor also known as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. Both scientists tried to proof that there is a correlation between language and thought in a way that humans are not able to think what they cannot say and that even their sensual experience of the world is influenced by that fact. Because of the way different languages evolved that would mean that the very kind of thinking that develops with it is typical for a certain society and culture and not fully free as we imagine them to be. In this essay I will first introduce the idea of linguistic determinism as it was developed by Sapir and Whorf while relying mainly on Whorf's analysis and examples. I will then use the fictitious design-language „Newspeak“ as described in the novel „1984“ by George Orwell to explain how the author elaborated the theory into a thought experiment about society and thus made the whole subject much more accessible and popular. I will try to give a broad introduction into the subject with the goal to prove the importance of different ways of speech for the different ways of thinking.


2. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897 – 1941) studied linguistics under Edward Sapir at Yale University whom he impressed very deeply. He never made a profession of his interest in linguistics though and worked as inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. It was events of his profession that made him wonder about linguistic subjects and many examples in his works stem from his insurance work. He had a great interest in Native American languages and is famous for his work on the Hopi language and his contributions to the study of Nahuatl and Maya languages. His “theory of linguistic relativity” is an attempt to explain the influence of language structures on cognition which he tried to prove by comparison of the “Standard Average European” (SAE) or Western languages with the Native American languages he researched. A very important part of this is his understanding of “speech and logic”. The problem is that we usually “[..] regard talking and thinking as wholly straightforward and transparent. We naturally feel that they embody self-evident laws of thought, the same for all men.” ([1], p.238) But Whorf says this is not the case. Actually the way our logic developed is deeply influenced by our language and its structure. That is why he combines the Western European and American languages to the SAE: They developed together, each of them influencing the others, and they're build on the same basic structure therefor provoking a similar logic. We all agreed on more or less the same rules because language is very much a cultural agreement which we are so familiar with because we learned it immediately after we're born. “Our explanations of how we reached this understanding, though quite satisfactory on the everyday social plane, are merely more agreements (statements) about the same subject matter [..], more and more amplified by statements about the social and personal needs that impel us to communicate. There are here no laws of thought.” ([1], p.238) Whorf often gives examples from the languages he analyzed to show how different structures of languages can be and how they imply a different kind of logic and thought. Indoeuropean languages are very much based on the difference of substantives and verbs. This is not a natural distinction, as Whorf says, it's just a kind of structure which our languages have been relying on. It was very prominent in the Greek language and Aristotle build up the contrast “and made it a law of reason “(p.241). This contrast is the base for our modern kind of logic: “[..] subject and predicate, actor and action, things and relations between things, objects and their attributes, quantities and operations.” (p.241) So this two4

group-relation is present in many if not most forms of european thinking. The Indian languages however often don't have the strict separation and use other forms of grammar. An example is the made with the Hopi words rehpi which means 'flash (occurred)'. It's a predicate without subject, something that is impossible in our languages where we always need an actor like in “it flashes” or “the light flashes” (wherein as Whorf puts it light and flash are actually the same). In conclusion he thinks that modern science often “sees actions and forces where it sometimes might be better to see states. “ (p.244) In Whorf's opinion this difference is not to be seen as a disadvantage. He actually prefers to integrate the multitude of languages into the picture because it allows us different ways of understanding, logic and views of the world. It is obvious that one way to understand a different culture is to learn their language which even explains their way of thinking as far as Whorf shows it . But we mustn't forget that our very own culture is bound to this as well and therefor is not neutral. Our (western) “provisional analysis of reality” can only be corrected by comparison with the analysis other cultures developed independently from our own. However, Whorf and Sapir very much developed the idea of the interdependence of language and thought but it remains a problem to truly show how far this connection goes. At some point both of them thought of the strictest possible form of “linguistic relativism” which would be “linguistic determinism”. With that no thought would be possible without a corresponding concept in language. This was much more of a theory as none of them or any scientists later was able to prove it. Nowadays most of the scientists working on linguistics reject this idea and in the works of Whorf and Sapir it may not be considered a very dominant element although especially Whorf often might be interpreted to work under this assumption. But it is still unclear how far thoughts may or may not be altered by alteration of the language and if e.g. people who don't know and never have known a name for a certain colour are able to actually see it and differentiate it or remember it as good as people who know the name. But there have also been several attempts (especially in literature) to use the concept of “linguistic determinism” and to incorporate it into society. One very popular result will be my base to illustrate the idea of “linguistic determinism” in the next chapter.


3. The novel “1984”
3.1 About the novel

The novel “1984” was written by George Orwell. It was first published in 1949. The protagonist Winston Smith lives inside the ruins of London, which belongs to the totalitarian state of Oceania. The state is ruled by the Ingsoc Party (English Socialism) which has (or at least works towards having) total control over every aspect of their citizens lifes. Winston Smith works in the Records department of the Ministry of Truth where he alters historical records so that they comply with the Party's version of history. He secretly writes a journal about his dissatisfaction with his life and his negative thoughts about the Party. This act is considered thoughtcrime and would result in torture and death if revealed by the thought police. It is described throughout the whole story how the regime is using controlled alteration of language- and thereby alteration of thoughts as suggested by the Sapir-Whorf-hypothesisto make 'thoughtcrime' impossible to happen. Therefor they invented Newspeak, a new language based on Standard English that has a dramatically reduced vocabulary and a simplified grammar/syntax so that it can only be used for clean communication that lacks any possibility of negative effect for the Party. The novel is followed by an Appendix about Newspeak that is written like a scientific essay explaining the goal of the language and how it is applied to the society.



Newspeak, as explained in the appendix fore mentioned Appendix, was considered the official language of Oceania “and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.” ([2]) By the time of the story (the year 1984) it is however not the only language. People do speak Standard English but use words and phrases from Newspeak which is still in development by that time. The progress is published in the Newspeak Dictionary which is constantly rewritten and updated so that people slowly 'grow' into the new language which is expected to supersed Oldspeak by the year 2050. The idea of Newspeak is clearly stated: “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of 6

Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” ([2]) This description obviously connects well with the Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis and 'linguistic determinism' while it also leaves room for interpretation because it remains unclear how strong the dependence between thought and words really is. Because this is the basic criticism on the determinism theory it is left unclear by the author but it is implied that the connecting is at least so strong that thought control is possible to execute through language. The Appendix explains how this should have been done: As a first step the vocabulary is changed dramatically by eliminating and replacing undesirable words. Unorthodox meanings and second meanings are to be eliminated as well. It is said in the novel that the Newspeak dictionary has less and less pages over time indicating that most words are not replaced but simply left out. As an example the Appendix mentions the word free. It still exists in Newspeak but it could only be used in statements like “This dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds”. Other meanings of free (politically, intellectually, 'Free like in Freedom') should disappear and become nameless so that they couldn't be expressed anymore and over time would be forgotten. “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought[..]” ([2]) Vocabulary was then divided into three groups A, B and C vocabulary. A vocabulary should contain words that were used in everyday life. Those were usually old(=already existing) words but there number was very small and their meaning rigidly defined. It should be impossible to use the A vocabulary for literary, philosophical or political discussions. The B vocabulary was made of words that were deliberately constructed for political and ideological purposes. They were all compound words whose meaning was very much connected to the political system and couldn't be understood correctly without knowledge about Ingsoc. Goodthink as an example should mean 'orthodoxy' or 'to think in an orthodox manner'. Some of the words' meanings were so distinct that it could only be reflected by a whole phrase in standard English and therefor impossible to say using A vocabulary. Many of the words also were euphemisms for obvious reasons. Examples are joycamp (forcedlabour camp) or Minipax (Ministry of peace, i.e. Ministry of War). Abbreviations like Recdep (Records Department) or Teledep (Teleprogrammes Department) were used very 7

intensely because “it had been noticed that the tendency to use abbreviations of this kind was most marked in totalitarian countries and totalitarian organizations. Examples were such words as Nazi, Gestapo, Comintern, Inprecorr, Agitprop. “ ([2]) The C vocabulary as a supplement to A and B consisted of scientific and technical terms changed in the common way to ease the pronounciation and to integrate with the other vocabulary and grammar. Grammatical rules were drastically simplified where ever possible. Different parts of speech could be exchanged very easily breaking any barriers between nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Furthermore most irregular forms were abandoned e.g. 'thought' was replaced by 'think' becoming both verb and noun while 'cut' was replaced by 'knife'. No etymological rules where used here whatsoever. Adjectives were formed by adding the suffix -ful to a noun-verb, adverbs carried the suffix -wise. As examples: speedful meant 'rapid' while speedwise meant 'quickly'. The word well was replaced by goodwise. Additionally very word could be negatived with the prefix un-, emphasized with the prefix plus- and emphasized even more with doubleplus-. This way a majority of words could be diminished. As an example the word bad was no longer necessary, it became ungood while worse was replaced by plusungood. Better became plusgood and so on. Through the choice which one of a given pair of opposites should be abandoned (or which one should be emphasized) language was changed dramatically. The outcome of this would have been that while 'crude' ways of expressing unorthodox opinions like “Big Brother is ungood” would still be possible it would be impossible to give arguments and hence have a discussion on the statement because the words to do this would have been missing. A sentence like “All mans are equal” would be possible to say but since the concept of political equality would be gone it would mean something like “Everybody has the same height, hair colour, or weight” which is plainly untrue. The ultimate effect would of course only occur once Newspeak became the sole language and humans growing up learning only this language would simply not know about any other way to express themselves. Since Ingsoc also constantly rewrote history and historical sources only knowledge that fits the ultimate ideology and language would have remained. As the Appendix explains after giving an abstract from the Declaration of Independence: “It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, whereby Jefferson’s words would be changed into a 8

panegyric on absolute government. ” ([2])


From Reality

Many concepts from the novel like Big Brother, Doublethink, Newspeak and other words found their way into popular culture and the modern language. The adjective “orwellian” is applied to circumstances that remind of the novel. By this the novel actually has made its own very special influence to linguistics by altering language and introducing new concepts that were obviously not available before. But while this is of course a fictional story it was heavily inspired by reality and the political events of the time. The idea to control peoples thoughts by controlling their language has been a central issue in the 20th century, as it was addressed by many regimes and dictatorships like the stalinist sovjet union, the Nazi Party in Germany -both of them very clearly served as inspiration for Orwell's novel and are referred to explicitly and implicitly- or the SED ruling the German Democratic Republic (Eastern Germany) that existed from 1949 to 1990. It is therefor not only fictitious theory that elaborates on the idea of “linguistic relativism and determinism” but also historical background on which the theory has to be reviewed. Alteration of language for ideological reasons has had a strong impact on our world and is therefor of primary interest as even Whorf already knew along with the danger that is implied by a common “world language”.

4. Conclusion
This of course should only illustrate the idea of linguistic determinism because as I already explained it has not been proven up to now that linguistic determinism does exist. Most of the scientists in the field agree that thought is actually not fully dependent on language. Idealism straightout rejects the idea of language existing prior to knowledge while 9

Empiricism doesn't agree that language exists prior to sense. However experiments show that there is some kind of connection although it remains uncertainty on the quality of this connection. The three basic questions remain: 1. Which aspects of language influence which aspects of thought? 2. What kind of influence is this? 3. How strong is that influence? These questions are researched by a great number of scientists and there are just as many opinions or answers to it each of them possibly differing greatly. ([3]) As we can see through the examples from Newspeak and the historical background certain concepts have been introduced to us along with the name or words for it. Big Brother is established in the novel and nowadays stands for a subject -sometimes unknown- that is spying on the people using mass-media, cameras and a huge technical apparatus therefor infiltrating everybody and virtually knowing everything. This abstraction is so popular that a tv show where the candidates are observed by cameras 24 hours a day -voluntarily- has got this name. There has not been any kind of term for this idea before the novel yet now if you use the term you immediately have a thought of what is meant. Same could be shown with other terms that have a rather complex meaning and culturally developed in our society. We might agree that having a name for a certain thought makes it easier to communicate about it and probably helps in spreading the concept. So in a certain sense the concept can't be thought without reflecting it in language. And it can't easily be translated to other languages where the underlying concepts are missing. One couldn't of course explain the concept of Big Brother without having the concept of spying, cameras and private sphere. Whorf has given quite a lot of examples from the native American languages where the people do indeed think in different ways and reflect it with a different structure in language. They also have terms of things that have cultural meaning to them that don't exist in our culture. It is necessary to know the differences and to explore them but as Whorf emphasizes they are necessary and must remain. No language should forcefully replace another language because it might be believed to be superior. This would result in also abandoning a certain way of different thinking and establishing a mono culture which is what probably has already happened - to a certain degree - in the Western societies where culture has merged is exported to other parts of the world as well. There is much to learn from the different approaches made in Asia, Africa and other parts of the world. In 10

the novel Nineteen-Eightyfour this is the dilemma created by Ingsoc. There are still three different states (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia) but they don't communicate to each other and therefor the people in each state are not aware how they're tricked. And with Newspeak in place that would probably be impossible for eternity. So while there is a certain interdependence between thought and language we're yet not able to analyse it specifically and understand it. What seems obvious and is said by most scientists is that different languages reflect different cultures which we should try to understand and learn from. It is our only way to really reflect on our own culture and society and may be the only source for original thinking in the future.

1: Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, And Reality, 1956, The M.I.T. Press 2: George Orwell, Appendix - The Principles of Newspeak from: Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949 3: Chris Swoyer, The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, 2003, The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis