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Linguistic Relativity

  Linguistic relativity, in linguistics, is often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis because it came to prominence with the writings of the American linguist Edward Sapir (1884 - 1939) and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf. They advanced the idea that the structure of our native language has a strong influence on the way we perceive the world. In an extreme version, the linguistic relativity hypothesis proposes that people from different language backgrounds effectively live in separate worlds, because of the disparate experiences provided for them by the structures of their languages. Linguistic relativity is often demonstrated by examining the organization of lexical items in a language. For example, in the Eskimo language, Inuit, there is a range of words used to denote different kinds of snow (though far fewer than was originally believed). According to the precepts of linguistic relativity, Inuit speakers should perceive certain physical distinctions between different kinds of snow, because the various words for snow in Inuit provide the means to do so. By implication, therefore, speakers of English, with the single word snow at their disposal, should be oblivious to subtle perceptual distinctions between different qualities of snow.

The thesis of linguistic relativity, when taken to extremes, compels us to accept the view that we are prisoners of our own language. But common experience informs us that most English speakers are perfectly aware that slushy snow is distinct from frozen snow and so on. Furthermore, skiers have developed terms like powder and corn to describe different types of snow. Evidently, for both Inuit speakers and skiers, the concepts conveyed by the spectrum of snow terms have taken on a special salience. However, it does not inevitably follow that, simply in the manifestation of culturally relevant distinctions, our language will thereby dictate the way we view the world.

Attempts to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis objectively have often centred on investigations of colour terms. Languages vary quite widely in the way they segment the colour spectrum. For example, many languages have a term equivalent to the colour yellow, but an object which would be classified as yellow in one language may not be so described in another. Apparently, then, the boundaries of colour terms differ according to the language we speak. However, we must also contend with the discovery that when people are asked to choose, say, the best example of yellow from a selection of objects, then a remarkable cross-linguistic consistency emerges. Evidently, people\'s perception of a quintessential yellow is the same, regardless of linguistic background.

Establishing the validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with any empirical certitude has been a notoriously difficult undertaking. Many researchers have, in fact, either rejected the concept of linguistic relativity or have abandoned it as unverifiable. However, it is possible to distinguish between strong and weak versions of the hypothesis. In its strongest form, sometimes known as linguistic determinism, language determines thought. While the concept of linguistic determinism is probably untenable, a weaker version is more plausible, since it merely suggests that language can influence the way we perceive and think about the world. MS



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