Human ecology

Observations on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
Uses of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

The last two sections examined some of the definitions of the SWH that have been proposed over the years and how these definitions have been experimentally tested. In contrast, this section will examine ways in which the SWH has been used. Four main texts are used. Steven Pinker's popularist account of the innate aspects of language, "The language instinct" (1994). Richard D. Gross' (1993) "Psychology: the science of mind and behaviour", a text-book for A level and first-year undergraduate students. "Structuralism and semiotics" (Hawkes, 1977) is the third text. This is a general introduction to the American and European lines of research; from Saussure and Peirce to Derrida. The final example is from a collection of essays concerned with literary criticism of medieval texts (Wasserman & Roney, 1989).

SWH vs. universal grammar.

Pinker apart from his experimental objections to SWH offers two main methodological objections. First, that the SWH denies an objective reality and therefore allows the scientifically uninformed to object to any theory that they disagree with. Secondly, that, contrary to the SWH, thoughts - or rather mental structures - determine language.

Pinker first objection to the SWH involves his opposition various kinds of reform movements (1994, pp.56-58). He specifically mentions those who “accuse governments of manipulated our minds with euphemism”, those who ‘argue that since animals lack language, they must also lack consciousness”, those who “blame sexist thinking on sexist language”. Although there are problems in these areas, it is not language that causes them. Governments are not brainwashing, they are lying (p.58). The idea that language determines thought also directs our attention away true understand of language (p.59)

According to Pinker, language does not determine thought, the opposite is true - structures in the brain determine our ability to speak. That humans possess a universal grammar that is wired into our brain. Two important aspects of this grammar is that it allows the arbitrariness of the sign and that it makes infinite use of finite media.

This first point (following Saussure) is not obviously a point against the SWH (as we shall see later, there are schools of thought that agree with both Saussure and the SWH).

(Defns: sign, signifier, signified, signifying systems)

The second point needs greater consideration. The idea that language makes infinite use of infinite media is another way of saying that language is a discrete combinatorial system. That is that from a small number of elements (letters) an infinite number of combinations can be produced (Note, in this context, Pinker notes the similarities between language, numbers, DNA). His implication could be that because of the infiniteness of language it can necessarily describe more possibilities than exist in the world (1994, pp.84-87). This raises an interesting question relate to the sizes of various infinities - a question I will return to later.

Overlapping theories.

When Gross discusses the relationships between thought and language, he offers the SWH as one of a range of alternative theories (1993, pp.360-361). He distinguishes a strong version of the SWH "language determines thought" and a weak version "language affects perception and memory" (ibid., p.362). As well as giving these two versions of the SWH, he outlines the ideas of Piaget and Vygotsky. Piaget’s early view was that “language is dependent on, and reflects, the level of cognitive development” but he later ascribed to Vygotsky’s idea that “regards thought and language as originally quite separate activities which come together and interact at a certain point of development (about two years old)” (ibid., pp.360-361, p.373). Gross does not consider these theories to be contradictory, instead he sees the possibilities of synthesis:

"We have considered different theories about the relationship between language and thought but there are points of overlap between them. If we superimpose them on top of each other we may have a more comprehensive and accurate picture of the nature of that relationship than any one on its own can provide." (Gross, 1992, p. 373)

As we shall see, this idea of synthesis is a theme that runs through discussions of the SWH by the social sciences. I will return to this theme later.

SWH in structuralism.

Although Hawkes uses Paiget’s definitions of structuralism, he makes three main references to the use of the SWH in structuralism. These uses are present in the works of Claude Levi-Strauss, Tzvetan Todorov, and Roland Barthes.

Hawkes argues that the SWH is based on the assumption that the real world is continuous whereas language is discrete. This implies that each language must 'encode' the world 'in accordance with its own structure' (Hawkes, 1977, pp.31-32).

"In short, a culture comes to terms with nature by means of 'encoding', through language. And it requires only a slight extension of this view to produce the implication that perhaps the entire field of social behaviour which constitutes the culture might in fact also represent an act of 'encoding' on the model of language. In fact, it might itself be a language." (ibid., p.32)

Levi-Strauss continued this theme in his anthropological studies. He took the working hypothesis that language is "at once the prototype of the cultural phenomenon (distinguishing man from the animals) and the phenomenon whereby all the forms of social life are established and perpetuated' (Levi-Strauss, 1958:1972, pp.358-359)." (Hawkes, 1977, p.33)

Therefore Levi-Strauss studied anthropology by looking at the discrete structures in (inter alia) kinship relations, mythology, and 'savage' cultures. He was not looking to see if the language of a culture determined its thoughts and behaviour. Instead, he was looking at whether a culture's behaviour is a discrete encoding of reality; whether behaviour is like a language. (Is this true?) (Correction of Whorf's views)

Whereas Levi-Strauss modifies aspects of the SWH, Todorov takes an opposite view - namely that there is a common experience of reality that informs languages. Not only does it inform ‘natural language’ (note defn? earlier?) it informs all signifying (note defn?) systems. (Hawkes, 1977, p.96)

"Not only all languages, but also all signifying systems conform to the same grammar. It is universal not only because it informs all the languages of the universe, but because it coincides with the structure of the universe itself." (Todorov, 1969, p.15, in Hawkes, 1977, p.96)

This would seem to agree with Pinker’s assertion that humans possess a universal grammar. Todorov uses this to argue that, through studying the artistic levels of signification in literature, we can learn more about the basic structures of signifying systems. (Hawkes, 1977, p.96) (Note: He tested this conjecture by analysing Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’.) This is important to our present discussion. It raises the possibility that thought is another signifying system. In other words, it is possible that the thoughts and natural language of an individual are different languages. Can we say that language determines thought if thought is another language. (Obscure?) I will deal with this possibility later.

One of the main conclusions that Todorov reached was that the structure of written language is different from the structures of other languages - among other things it has linear form.

While Barthes continues some aspects of Todorov's work, he may have a different view of the SWH. According to Hawkes:

"Just as Whorf and Sapir argue that the so-called objective world does not exist 'out there', but is manufactured by us within and through our total pattern of behaviour, so Barthes insists that literature has no single 'natural' or 'objective' standing beyond our own culture." (Hawkes, 1977, p.112)

(More about codes? Different codes within a language. The narrative form in French) (Conjt. SWH operates between individual language speakers?)


This concludes my summary of the use of the SWH in structuralism. Three themes raise themselves for future discussion.

1. 'Language' in structuralism means more than our human 'natural languages'. Their use of the word 'language' includes all signifying systems. 'Thought' may also be a signifying system.

2. Signifying systems encode reality in different ways. Different codes have different structural forms.

3. The SWH both upheld and denied by the schools of structuralism. The SWH is most often used to deny 'objective reality. But this does not deny the possibility of universal grammar. In similar ways to its use in psychology, SWH is used as part of a sythesis of different ideas.


Modern practice of SWH in cultural studies.

Wasserman's use of the SWH encompasses some of the changes that have occured in cultural studies over the years. Attributing this ideas to the SWH, he says that "knowledge is not a function of the known but, rather, the knower or, better still, the semantic categories which the knower brings to the known" (Wasserman, 1989, p. 207) He uses this to suggest that the known has a plurality of aspects. The categories that each knower brings can either reveal or conceal aspects of the known. Therefore, in his discussion of Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale', he says that:

“Thus Palamon views Emelye with an eye toward "hoolynesse" and sees a "goddesse" while Arcite views her with an eye toward the "creature" and sees a "womman." Yet assuredly, the word "love" can mean both otherworldly and fleshly affection, and Emelye is both woman and goddess." (ibid, p.207)

Here, perhaps, it is the interaction of the both knower's language and the properties of the known that determines the thoughts and actions of the knower. This interplay is crcial to understanding the use of the SWH in cultural studies. Stuart Hall gives one explanation of linguistic relativism: “... if meaning is the result, not of something fixed out there, in nature, but of our social, cultural and linguistic conventions, then meaning can never by finally fixed. We can all ‘agree’ to allow words to carry somewhat different meanings ... Of course, there must be some fixing of meaning in language, or otherwise we would never be able to understand one another... On the other hand, there is no absolute or final fixing of meaning...The main point is that meaning does not inhere in things, in the world. It is constructed, produced.” (Hall, 1997b, pp.23-24)

(Use of SWH in critisim of science.)

“Common-sense and culturally dominant views may emphasize the biological aspects of motherhood - it is ‘taken for granted’ as natural and therefore fixed as an identity.” (Woodward, 1997c, p.246)

(Counters to this criticism)

"The realisation that most scientific observations are context-dependent has led some philosophers to argue that science is a social construct which has nothing to do with reality and is solely a matter of human convention. This argument stems from the entirely sensible modern perception that scientific 'truth' is not absolute, but depends upon having some agreed common conceptual framework. However, the belief that science is solely a construct, which by implication could be whatever scientists decided to agree on, is really very silly - however elegantly phrased - because it ignores a very important aspect of these conceptual frameworks. They are not arbitary: they are the outcome of a previous scientific process. For example, scientists cannot make objects float skywards merely by agreeing amongst themselves that the force of gravity acts up rather than down." Stewart & Cohen (1997, p.36)

(What is the meaning of construct)

Links at this site...
Links to other sites...
Created 15/1/00
Last modified 17/2/00