You are on page 1of 31

What is the Relationship Between Language and Thought

Exam Comments
Each question worth 4 points. Extra point given to questions that were especially insightful. Points removed for lack of clarity, repetitions and misstatements. Exam given extra point for inclusiveness (bringing language, culture, biology, Exam given extra point if interaction, dialectical relationship pointed out.

Exam Questions
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? What was the advantage of the two tube vocal tract? The concept of the natural syllabus Stephen Krashen.

What Is Linguistic Determinism?

What is determined? What is doing the determinining? What in language is doing the determining? Why is this a structuralist approach?

WHORF on English versus Hopi

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. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way -- an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the pattern of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATORY: we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. "Science and Linguistics (c.a. 1940).

Sapir (Whorfs Teacher) on Linguistic Determinism

Language is a guide to "social reality." Though language is not ordinarily thought of as of essential interest to the students of social science, it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. 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. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built upon 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 world with different labels attached. Sapir, Language 1929)

Boas (Sapirs Teacher) on Linguistic Determinism

... it determines those aspects of experience that must be expressed... When we say "The man killed the bull" we understand that a definite single man in the past killed a definite single bull. We cannot express this experience in which a way that we remain in doubt whether a definite or indefinite person or bull, one or more persons or bulls, the present or past time are meant. We have to choose between aspects and one or the other must be chosen. The obligatory aspects are expressed by means of grammatical devices (1938:132). The aspects chosen in different groups of languages vary fundamentally. To give an example; while for us, definiteness, number and time are obligatory aspects, we find in another location -- near the speaker or somewhere else, source of information, whether seen, heard (i.e., known by hearsay) or inferred -- as obligatory aspects. Instead of saying "The man killed the bull." I should have to say, "This man (or men) kill (indefinite tense) as seen by me that bull (or bulls)" (Boas 1938:133). "a paucity of obligatory aspects does not by any means imply obscurity of speech. When necessary, clarity can be obtained by adding explanatory words.

Boas: it determines those aspects of experience that must be expressed Sapir: Language is a guide to "social reality." Whorf: We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. Sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The Whorfian Hypothesis

What is a hypothesis? Whorf attempted to provide examples of language differences and not simply made the claim. Whorf actually claimed that some languages may be superior to European languages.

Hopi V SAE
By comparison with many American languages, the formal systematization of ideas in English, German, French or Italian seems poor and jejune. Why, for instance, do we not, like the Hopi, use a different way of expressing the relation of channel of sensation (seeing) to result in consciousness, as between 'I see that it is red' and 'I see that it is new?' We fuse the two quite different types of relationships into a vague sort of connection expressed by 'that', whereas the Hopi indicates that in the first case seeing presents a sensation 'red', and in the second that seeing presents unspecified evidence from which is drawn the inference of newness. If we change the form to 'I hear that is red' or 'I hear that it is new,' we European speakers still cling to our lame 'that', but the Hopi now uses still another relater and makes no distinction between 'red' and 'new' since, in either case, the significant presentation to consciousness is that of a verbal report, and neither a sensation per se nor inferential evidence. Does the Hopi language show here a higher plane of thinking, a more rational analysis of situations, than our vaunted English? Of course it does. In this field and in various others, English compared to Hopi is like a bludgeon compared to a rapier. We even have to think and boggle over the question for some time, or have it explained to us, before we can see the difference in the relationships expressed by 'that' in the above examples, whereas the Hopi discriminates these relationships with effortless ease, for the forms of his speech have accustomed him to do so. Whorf, Language Thought and Reality, PP 140

Habitual Thought
By "habitual thought" and "thought world" I mean more than simply language, i.e., than the linguistic patterns themselves. I include all the analogical and suggestive value of the patterns (e.g., our "imaginary space and its distant implications), and all the giveand-take between language and the culture as a whole, wherein is a vast amount that is not linguistic but yet shows the shaping influence of language. In brief, this "thought world" is the microcosm that each man carries about within himself, by which he measure and understands what he can of the macrocosm.

Whorfs Questions
Are our concepts of time, space and matter given in substantially the same form by experience to all men [sic], or are they in part conditioned by the structure of particular languages? Ans: This is the Whorfian Hypothesis Are there traceable affinities between cultural and behavioral norms and large scale linguistic patterns? Ans: I [Whorf] would be the last to pretend that there is anything so definite as a correlation between culture and language and especially between ethnological rubrics such as agricultural, hunting etc, and linguistic ones like inflected, synthetic and isolating.

Examples of Language Difference

tl'imsm-ya boil



'itl go for

ma he-does

ed eat ers

Example 1: Shawnee
S ______|______ | | VP | | | | NP | | | | | | __VP___ | | | | | | | | V V N V NP | | | | | tl'imsm-ya 'is ita 'itl ma boil ed eat ers go for he-does

ga 'be white (clear, uncolored)' no 'downward motion, enters' to 'water' goh_ 'place' goh_ga 'clearing [goh + ga] no_ga to goh_ga 'a dripping spring

What language is this?

1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

singular item exists in the present indefinite quantity small spheroidal quantities ongoing action to erupt suddenly IT'S A DRIPP-ING SPRING 1 2 3 4 5 English

Objectified Time Words in SAE

Such terms as "summer, winter, September, morning, noon, sunset" are with us nouns, and have little formal linguistic difference from other nouns. They can be subjects or objects, and we say "at sunset or in winter" just as we say "at a corner" or "in an orchard." They are pluralized and numerated like nouns of physical objects, as we have seen. Our thought about the referents of such words hence becomes' objectified. Without objectification, it would be a subjective experience of real time, i.e., of the consciousness of "becoming later and later"-simply a cyclic phase similar to an earlier phase in that ever-laterbecoming duration.

Non Objectified Time Temporals in Hopi

In Hopi, however, all phase terms, like "summer, morning," etc., are not nouns but a kind of adverb, to use the nearest SAB analogy. They are a formal part of speech by themselves, distinct from nouns, verbs, and even other Hopi "adverbs." Such a word is not a case form or a locative pattern, like "des Abends" or "in the morning." It contains no morpheme like one of "in the house" or "at the tree." It means "when it is morning" or "while morning-phase is occurring." These "temporals" are not used as subjects or objects, or at all like nouns. One does not say ''it's a hot or ''summer is hot''; summer is not hot, summer is only WHEN conditions are hot, WHEN heat occurs. One does not say "THIS summer," but "summer now" or "summer recently." There is no objectification, as a region, an extent, a quantity, of the subjective duration-feeling. Nothing is suggested about time except the perpetual "getting later" of it. And so there is no basis here for a formless item answering to our "time.

Whorf's Time Example

1. Subjective Experience (the experience of non discrete entities (time) 2. Objective (the experience of discrete entities) a. Objectification the patterning of subjective experience along objective lines. 3. Cardinal numbers v ordinal numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4.... 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, ... 4. Hopi treat time as a subjective experience as a continuum a. Use of ordinal numbers He left after the 5th day. b. U of time words as adverbs and not nouns. c. SAE treat time as objective experience. He left after 3 days. 1. That is it has been objectified. 2. Note use of cardinal numbers 3. Note use of time words as nouns and adverbials. Monday, Tomorrow SAE is the one that has departed from reality.

Chinese versus English

1. Adjectives (actually stative verbs).
1. 2. da L large gau M high syau LH small gau M tall di M low chang H long ai LH short dwan LH short

M LH 2. Ta ai. He is short M LH LH bu 'not' 3. Ta ai buai. He is short or not? i.e., How tall is he? 4. Statement 2 rarely given as statement unless in response to 3.

5. "In making de novo statements a predicate which includes a stative verb [i.e., adjective] invariably also has modifiers - the negative modifier bu L 'not' or some indication like hen LH 'quite, dzwei HL 'very' or jen L 'really'. Hockett p 120 6. "We may say that a pair of Chinese adjectives establishes a scale, and specifies one side of that scale as positive. The normal adjectival predicate then serves to locate the subject somewhere on that scale, but always more or less relatively to others, never in an absolute way. L M M LH L H M 7. Jeijang jwodz bi neijang chang. this table as compared to that one long L M M LM LH M L L 8. Jeijang jwodz bi neijang chang santswen This table as compared to that one long three-inches 9. Now we may ask whether there is any attribute of Chinese culture with which this habitual relativism correlates. ...the Chinese "philosophy of life" emphasizes a "doctrine of the mean": never get too happy, or you may also become too sad; moderation in all things [including moderation?]

Question of Direction

10. This suggestion is put foreword with great hesitation... for if there is indeed a determinable correlation, then it would impress the writer that the direction of causality in the matter is in all probability form "philosophy of life" to language, rather than vice versa. 11. Does this example provide support for the Whorfian Hypothesis?

Goodenough Language And Property In Truk

1. Two types of ownership marked linguistically 2. Simple Ownership wa- ey vehicle- my my vehicle/canoe) wuuf-ey clothes-my my clothes uniw-ey land- my my land sam-ey father- my my father 3. Ownership from the standpoint of the owned object wa- ey, citosa my car wuuf-ey, seec my shirt winim-ey ni my coconut drink 4. Types of property ownership in Truk Full ownership versus divided ownership e.g. provisional title and residual title; gifts as opposed to loans 5. Does this example provide support for the Whorfian Hypothesis?

Brown and Lenneberg (1958) devised a Color-Codability

Different languages classify colors differently. Question, does this affect peoples perception of color? Codability: regardless of language, speakers took longer to classify borderline colors than usual colors. Also when speakers were asked to recall the color, they tended to classify borderline colors closer to the prototypic color.

Carroll and Cassagrandes Color and Shape Saliency Experiments

Navajo has noun prefixes based on spacial features:
long and flat (paper, leaf); long and rigid (stick, pole); long and flexible (snake, rope, hose).

Question: Since sensitivity to shape is necessary would Navajo-speaking children be more sensitive to shape, than say color, than English-speaking children?N

The test.
Persent the child with three pictures; two pictures would share a common color and two would share a common shape. Ask the child which two went together. The child had the choice of choosing shape or color.

The hypothesis is that the Navajo speaking children would choose shape over color.

The results
They found that shape was more salient in young Navaho speakers ages 3-5 than their English-speaking counterparts, but that by age 7 years, this difference had all but disappeared. However, when this experiment was repeated in other groups of English speakers they found that one group of middle class children responded like the Navaho speakers and that another group of poverty class children responded more like the English-speaking Navahos.

Problems with the hypothesis

The Hypothesis had a number of problems: Lack of empirical support In the strong form, how would it account for change? In the strong form, how would you learn a second language? Although the hypothesis never received any strong empirical support, it was never given a stunning defeat. Why then did it fall from favor?

Where Whorf Went Wrong

The Events: 1. When the Whorfian hypothesis was introduced in the early 30s, it represented a marked escalation over the earlier position of Sapir. 2. The hypothesis was enthusiastically received up through the 50's (after all it did suggest an explanation for cultural variation) 3. When it gradually declined in popularity. Currently it is still accepted in some corners.

The Answer:
1. These events suggest that the Whorfian hypothesis is part of a larger picture and that I suggest is the period of strong empiricism. This period which had parallels in many other sciences was received in Linguistics (Bloomfield, 1933) from the Behavioristic branch of psychology (Watson). As long as empiricism prevailed, the role of the mind as an independent entity was considered to be virtually nonexistent. As a result, knowledge could only result from experience, including information gained through language. It followed logically that different incoming information (including language) would influence knowledge and understanding differently. Thus the Whorfian hypothesis was logically consistent with the empiricist tradition. Chomsky (1960's) reestablished within linguistics the validity of the independent role of the mind in developing knowledge and understanding. Given this position, incoming information could not be viewed as the sole source of knowledge and consequently language differences could not automatically be held responsible for conceptual differences. For this reason, the Whorfian hypothesis could no longer be viewed as a logical consequence of the more general perspective (now rationalism).


3. 4.


Whats going on here?

Evidence has not been found to support the Whorfian hypothesis. Does this mean that language plays no role in determining the way we think? What are other possibilities?
Hint: Whorf was looking at structure (grammar); what about looking at discourse? Hint: Sapir, language is a guide to social reality.