Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis/ Language Determinism | My Paper Hub
Culture is an essential part of the
Culture is an essential part of the
language that one acquires. The culture of an individual refers to the values,
beliefs and norms of the society they are affiliated. A person’s culture is
like a lens in which we experience the world around them and develop shared
meanings as per the cultures that one belongs to. There is, therefore, an
apparent relationship between how a person speaks and how they perceive the
world around. However, there has been a reigning question on how the language
spoken by an individual influence and affects their culture. It is in the quest
to answer the question that an anthropologist and linguistic named Edward Sapir
together with his student name Benjamin Whorf created the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis. Sapir first discussed the theory in 1929 but became famous in the
1950s following the publications made by Whorf writing on the subject (Earl
& Agnoli, 1991).
The theory states that their thought processes largely determine the way a
person looks at the world, and hence the language limits an individual's
thought processes. The hypothesis asserts that the language of individual
shapes their reality. It is a theory that faced abject controversy with the
followers of Noam Chomsky strongly attacking it but was later accepted by a
majority of the linguistics only in the notion that language has a small effect
on thought and not in its entirety. It was the main break thorough in the
analysis and discussion of the relationship between the mind and the language
of an individual. It is because, it states that the language of individual
shapes their perceptions and cognitions thus asserts an influence on their
mind. According to the hypothesis, the mental world of one area is different
from the mental world of another area (Earl & Agnoli,
1991). The hypothesis was crucial at
identifying the aspects affecting the language area of spatial reasoning and
the spatial areas affecting the reasoning of other thoughts. Therefore,
language differences cause differences in the mind of the language users.
The hypothesis asserts that language
can constrain our thoughts and beliefs. It is true in the sense that the
wordings we use can determine the first image we get in our minds. There is
mental picture that pops out because of using the particular language. It is an
analogy that has been used historically even to control people and what they
perceive as a result of the words they hear. It is because, changing the meaning
of a word in a language can distort the mental image and the ideas that they
will carry. It is an idea used in some instances and proven to work to pass
political ideologies influencing the people to think as the leaders so wish.
For example, the word ‘negro’ means black in both Spanish and Portuguese
languages (Dedre & Goldin-Meadow, 2003). However, during the slave trade and
times of slavery the white people in the United States began using the word
about the slaves and as a word that was demeaning to the people of color. It
changed the perception of the previously non-abusive word that just meant a
person of African heritage and made it a term used to pass the slavery agenda
or rather to repress the African Americans. Today the word is taken as being
racist. Therefore, the language constrained the language and meaning of the
word to form other beliefs and thoughts. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also
indicated that there is linguistic relativism in that the differences in
language will lead to a difference in thinking of an idea correctly (Dedre
& Goldin-Meadow, 2003). It asserts that the language used can
distort the interpretation of a similar idea. The hypothesis, however, made an
error in stating that language has an absolute control or determination of the
thoughts since there are instances that a deviation in language does not
automatically lead to a change in the beliefs and cognitions of an individual.
Therefore, language determinism is only applicable to a small extent and not
Language determinism refers to the
concept that what is said has an effect only on the concepts that are
recognized by the mind (Harley, 2010). There can be strong and weak determinism.
Strong determinism refers to the strict view that what is said is directly
responsible for what is perceived by the mind. However, the weak determinism
recognizes that there is some effect on the perception of a person’s language,
but it is not as clear as it is in the strong determinism. In weak determinism,
the view of an individual is not determined by their language but in strong
determinism the perception is strictly defined by the language. Gender marking
is the determination of the meaning of a word or phrase based on its
representation as to whether it is masculine or feminine. In as much as there
is a substantial reduction of gendered words in the language, there is a need
to realize that there are some words that are sexist and may lead to wrong
interpretations. The perception of a person is influenced b y their gender
marking of the words they hear or speak (Harley, 2010). The gender marking is also
affected by the cultural background of the individual based on what they
perceive as masculine or feminine. For example by using the word “chairman”
some individuals will automatically get a mental picture of a man in a suit
whereas others will interpret it as a person without necessarily attaching any
gender on them. It is because, the gender marking allows the person to realize
that the ‘chairman’ could mean a man or a woman and hence the need to ascertain
before making a judgment. The gender markers are strongly influenced by the
beliefs and the cognitions held by an individual that may lead to wrong
interpretation of the language and hence the need to avoid the gendered
language (Dedre & Goldin-Meadow, 2003).
Researchers are still looking into the
question of the relationship, between language, thought, and culture. The ideas
put across by Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are receiving widespread support and
opposition with more and more extensions and support of the theory forthcoming
in the quest to have validation or refutation of the hypothesis. The theory
asserts that language affects thoughts in that a person’s perception is based
on their language (Littlejohn, 2002). However, there are other researchers
indicating that thoughts affect language. In support of this analogy, Piaget
states that in cognitive psychology, the child can acquire language to the
extent of their cognitive development and not the other way round. The more
moderate theorists suggest that language and the mind affect each other. It is
a theory by Vigotsky Benjamin combining Piaget’s cognitive psychology and
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Littlejohn, 2002). It recognizes the role that the mind
has to play to language acquisition while at the same time considering the
language determinism by the Sapir-Whorf theory. It is the most preferred
approach by cognitive psychologists although researchers are still enquiring on
the validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis emphasizes that the language of an
individual determine the mental picture they get regarding an issue. The theory
also recognizes the possibility of language relativism whereby the different
languages that exist account for the differences in the cognitive processes of
individuals. Individuals from different languages, therefore, understand words
in various ways (Harley, 2010). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that language can be extended
to mean something different and subsequently change the perception of an
individual or rather shape their way of thinking and beliefs held. The
hypothesis plays a crucial role in answering the question of the relationship
between culture, language and the cognitions of an individual. It, however,
faces criticism and support from different researchers with others ascribing to
the idea that unlike the hypothesis insinuating that language affects the mind,
the mind affects language while others claim that language and the mind affects
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