Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

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Transcript Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Cross-Cultural Miscommunication
The book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall
Down, the article “Shakespeare in the Bush,” and
the film “A World of Differences” (which you will see
next week) all stress the fact that communicating
across cultural boundaries can be very difficult. On the
one hand, language very complex, and there are many
opportunities for communication errors and faux pas.
On the other hand, even a perfect grasp of language
does not ensure perfect communication since our very
ability to transmit meaning rests on a vast web of
cultural understandings that may not be shared.
For some humorous examples of
communication blunders, see . . .
• The website “Some Humorous Cross-Cultural
Advertising Gaffes!” (this is hilarious)
Reflecting on the article “Shakespeare in the Bush,”
what were some of the stumbling blocks that the
anthropologist encountered as she tried to tell the
story of Hamlet? Was this a problem of language
(that the anthropologist did not know the African
language well enough?) or a problem of culture (that
a different set of cultural presumptions kept her
audience from comprehending key points of the
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis revolves
around the idea that language has
power and can control how you see the
world. Language is a guide to your
reality, structuring your thoughts. It
provides the framework through which
you make sense of the world.
See the article “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Worlds Shaped by Words”
To understand the S-W Hypothesis, it helps to
be aware that there are two opposing ideas
about language and culture. The S-W
Hypothesis is in line with the second idea
listed here:
1. Language mirrors reality: People have thoughts
first, then put them into words. Words record
what is already there. All humans think the
same way, but we use different words to label
what we sense.
This is an example of the cloak theory: that
language is a cloak that conforms to the customary
categories of thoughts of its speakers
*This is NOT the S-W Hypothesis
To understand the S-W Hypothesis, it helps to
be aware that there are two opposing ideas
about language and culture. The S-W
Hypothesis is in line with the second idea
listed here:
2. Language dictates how we think. The
vocabulary and grammar (structure) of a
language determines the way we view the
world (“worlds shaped by words”).
This is an example of the mold theory: that
language is a mold in terms of which thought
categories are cast.
*This IS the S-W Hypothesis
The S-W Hypothesis consists of
2 paired principles:
a) Linguistic determinism: the
language we use to some extent
determines the way in which we view
and think about the world around us.
b) Linguistic relativity: people who
speak different languages perceive
and think about the world quite
differently from one another.
•Example 1: Gasoline barrels
•Example 2: Inuit words for snow &
Apache place-names (Basso reading)
•Example 3: Hopi conceptions of time
•Example 4: Color words
•Example 5: Piraha lack of recursion and
lack of number words
Implications of the Strong Version of the S-W Hypothesis:
*note that these implications are controversial, which is why many do
not accept the strong version of the S-W Hypothesis
•A change in world view is impossible for speakers of one language. For
this reason, some speak of the “prison-house of language,” or call
language a “straightjacket”
•True cross-cultural communication and translation are impossible
--case of Pablo Neruda – refuses to allow his poetry to be translated
from Spanish
--case of Ngugi Wa Thiongo – refused, for a long time, to write in any
language but Swahili
•Language is powerful–it can stimulate strong, emotional responses and
shape how people think about morally and socially important issues.
--This is why we use euphemisms.
--This is why groups like the “language police” try to intervene and
control what words people use.