Linguistic Relativity

The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view, or otherwise influences their cognitive processes. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined as having two versions: (i) the strong version that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories and (ii) the weak version that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour. The term "SapirWhorf Hypothesis" is a misnomer, as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf never co-authored anything, and never stated their ideas in terms of a hypothesis. The distinction between a weak and a strong version of the hypothesis is also a later invention, as Sapir and Whorf never set up such a dichotomy although in their writings at times their view of this relativity principle are phrased in stronger or weaker terms.

The idea was first clearly expressed by 19th-century thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, who saw language as the expression of the spirit of a nation. Members of the early 20th-century school of American anthropology headed by Franz Boas and Edward Sapir also embraced forms of the idea to one extent or another, but Sapir in particular wrote more often against than in favor of anything like linguistic determinism. Sapir's student Benjamin Lee Whorf came to be seen as the primary proponent as a result of his published observations of how he perceived linguistic differences to have consequences in human cognition and behavior. Harry Hoijer, one of Sapir's students, introduced the term "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", even though the two scholars never actually advanced any such hypothesis. Whorf's principle of linguistic relativity was reformulated as a testable hypothesis by Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg who conducted experiments designed to find out whether color perception varies between speakers of languages that classified colors differently. As the study of the universal nature of human language and cognition came into focus in the 1960s the idea of linguistic relativity fell out of favour among linguists. A 1969 study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay claimed to demonstrate that color terminology is subject to universal semantic constraints, and hence to discredit the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.

From the late 1980s a new school of linguistic relativity scholars have examined the effects of differences in linguistic categorization on cognition, finding broad support for weak versions of the hypothesis in experimental contexts. Some effects of linguistic relativity have been shown in several semantic domains, although they are generally weak. Currently, a balanced view of linguistic relativity is espoused by most linguists holding that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes in non-trivial ways, but that other processes are better seen as subject to universal factors. Research is focused on exploring the ways and extent to which language influences thought. The principle of linguistic relativity and the relation between language and thought has also received attention in varying academic fields from philosophy to psychology and anthropology, and it has also inspired and colored works of fiction and the invention of constructed languages.

Read more about Linguistic RelativityDefinitional Issues and Debates, History, Empirical Research, Linguistic Relativity and Artificial Languages

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