Testing Linguistic Relativity. The Rediscovery of a Controversial Theory

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

31 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis – a Short History of a Controversial Theory
II.1 The Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis
II.2 Review of the Theory of Linguistic Relativity

III. Opposing and Supporting Linguistic Relativity – Two Studies
III.1 Disproving Linguistic Relativity: Altarriba/Tse (2008) in response to Boroditsky (2001) and January/Kako (2007)
III.1.1 Design and Method
III.1.2 Results
III.1.3 Discussion and Conclusion
III.1.4 Interpretation
III.2 Proving Linguistic Relativity: Boroditsky/Gaby (2010)
III.2.1 Design and Method
III.2.2 Results
III.2.3 Discussion and Conclusion
III.2.4 Interpretation

IV. Conclusion



'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already [...] we're not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there's no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won't be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. […] Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?'

George Orwell, 1984

I. Introduction

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher and linguist, once said that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. He joins a long line of philosophers, philologists and linguists who believe that understanding language is a key to understanding thought (see Wilhelm von Humboldt, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Lera Boroditsky). The idea that language is responsible for how one sees the world was embraced euphorically in the 19th century (cf. Deutscher, p. 136). But this theory also implies that a language limits thought: that what can not be expressed in a language also can not be thought about by their speakers. That this is not true is shown in many studies following the euphoria, especially those which show that thought is in large parts a non-linguistic process and thus not shaped by language, and that other language communities, thus cultures, are well able to understand foreign content (see January/Kako 2007; Gleitman/Papafragou/Massey 2002). Additionally, an assumption which underlies the theory, that other languages are built similarly to European languages, and that they can be examined and explained using European concepts and ideas, was criticized (cf. Káa 1976). Regardless of the many critical points, in recent years some linguists rethink the theory and claim that although it might not be entirely correct – particularly regarding the use of European standards – some of its aspects may hold some truth: research focuses on the idea that while language might not be limiting to thought and not all thought relies on language, language influences how someone perceives the world to a certain degree (cf. Boroditsky 2012). This term paper deals with different approaches in linguistic relativity research, proving the thesis that the question whether linguistic relativity exists or not can not be answered with a simple yes or no, but that the answer lies in between. The theoretical framework will be provided by an overview of the theory of linguistic relativity, whose history of origins will be introduced briefly in the beginning, followed by a review of its criticism. Subsequently, two studies will be presented and interpreted, one trying to prove and one trying to disprove the hypothesis.

II. The Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis – a Short History of a Controversial Theory

While the complex of ideas known as the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis was very popular among scientists and philosophers in the 19th century, it was later criticized heavily for various reasons. As of late, it regains relevance again. Because of the theory's turbulent history, its origins will be introduced briefly in this section, followed by a review of the points criticized.

II.1 The Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis is based on the theory of linguistic relativity, which has its origins with the romanticists of the 17th and 18th century and in the idea that “no limit could be set on the way languages might differ from one another” (Robins 1976, p. 100). Especially the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt pioneered in the field of linguistic research, according to Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher (cf. Deutscher 2010, p. 133ff.). When the Humboldt examined the language of the Basques in the Pyrenees in 1799, he realized that their language was not related to Latin and thus unique among the European languages (cf. ibid., p. 134). Upon closer research he developed the idea that languages, especially their grammatical structures, do not only reflect differences in thinking but that they are responsible for those differences (cf. ibid., p. 135f.). According to his theory, speakers of different languages think differently, meaning their thinking and world view is relative to the language they speak – hence the term linguistic relativity. This theory found widespread approval among philosophers and philologists of the 19th century, although none of them tried to prove it scientifically (cf. ibid., p. 136ff.). It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that linguists started to research other languages more thoroughly (cf. ibid., p. 137).

Edward Sapir, born in 1884, dedicated himself to the study of Indian American languages and their respective grammars (cf. ibid., p. 138). He developed the theory that languages not only shape thought but that they are determining and even limiting to thought, extending the term of linguistic relativity by the term of linguistic determinism (cf. ibid., p. 139; Matthews 1997, p. 328). Sapir found evidence in examples of untranslatable expressions, such as in the Indian American language Nootka (cf. Deutscher 2010, p. 139): If someone wanted to describe a falling stone in English, they would say “the stone falls” and assume this to be the correct description of the process (cf. ibid., p. 139). But in Nootka, there is no translation of the verb “to fall” but a special expression reserved for the movement of a stone; in combination with a downwards movement it would translate back into English like this: “(it) stones down” (ibid., p. 139). It should be noted that this example is evidence for a deviant way to describe the process of a falling stone but it is no evidence for a possibly different perception of the process in general – a fact which was widely ignored at Sapir's time (cf. ibid., p. 140).

Benjamin Lee Whorf, born in 1897, was an American engineer, self-educated linguist and student of Sapir (cf. Lucy 1992, p. 25). He developed his teacher's ideas further and stated that language “is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual's mental activity, for his analysis of impressions... We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages” (Deutscher 2010, p. 140f.). Especially Whorf's research on the Hopi language helped him to fame when he presented his findings that the Hopi Indians did not have a concept of time: He claimed they had “no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call 'time,' or to past, present, or future” (ibid., p. 142; Whorf 1956, p. 64). Although his research became quite popular, it was disproved in 1983 by the linguist Ekkehart Malotki, who presented the various possibilities to express time in Hopi (cf. Deutscher 2010, p. 143).

Whorf's work was probed numerous times, weaknesses in his theory were discovered and findings of research questioned (cf. McWhorter 2014). The linguist Penny Lee defends Whorf in pointing out that he “was essentially self-taught”, and that his approach needs to be seen in the context of “historical or cultural contingencies of his time” (Lee 1996, p. 8 and 14). Although his “work in linguistics was and still is recognized as being of superb professional quality by linguists”, he was not a professional linguist (Lucy 1992, p. 25). His theory as a whole is not formulated properly “in any one place in his writings” but unfolds upon interpreting his works as a whole and especially in combination with the works of his mentor Sapir (Lee 1996, p. 15). This is also the reason why the complex of ideas by Sapir and Whorf became known as the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis, as an accumulation of articles and papers which together form the theory of language shaping thought.

II.2 Review of the Theory of Linguistic Relativity

The Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis was, as already mentioned, not only popular but was also criticized heavily in the years following Whorf's death (cf. Boroditsky 2012, p. 618). Especially the idea of other language communities – cultures – not being able to understand certain concepts simply due to the limitations of their language seems difficult since this not only appears discriminating against cognitive abilities of other language communities but is also a wrong assumption (cf. Altarriba/Tse 2008, p. 336; Deutscher p. 147). There is, for example, the concept of the abject which was developed by the French philosopher Julia Kristeva. It describes something in between an object and a subject, and its uncomfortable state of in-between is crucial both for the development of the “I” and for creating horror (cf. Kristeva 1982, p. 3). The word abject is non-existent in German, for example, but German-speakers can understand the abstract idea, even find their own word for it, or simply absorb the term, replace c with k and receive: “das Abjekt.” Deutscher draws the conclusion, that the assumption that thought is restricted by the boundaries of the language of the one who thinks needs to be rejected (Deutscher, p. 150). There are many other examples of studies disproving the theory of linguistic relativity, especially those rejecting linguistic determinism (cf. Papafragou/Gleitman 2005, p. 58).

Contrarily, there are studies supporting the theory of linguistic relativity. The Belorussian linguist Lera Boroditsky states that there are some “noncontroversial ways in which language acts on our thoughts and actions” (Boroditsky 2012, p. 618). Even linguistic relativity skeptics like John H. McWhorter agree that certain aspects of language are not only a mirror of particular social structures but that they are even crucial for social identity – he mentions the seven different ways to address another person in Thai as an example (cf. McWhorter, p. x). Boroditsky, in turn, refers to the so-called speech act theory which claims that certain utterances themselves have an influence on the world – for instance, the utterance “I promise” itself is the act of promising (cf. Austin 1962, p. 12ff.). But those incidences are not what the linguistic relativity research that is dealt with in this paper is concerned with. The theory described in this paper examines the claim that the structure of a language and the words in it have a significant influence in how thought itself is shaped. Some linguists even go one step further and say that language and thought are so deeply intertwined that they only can be researched in relation to each other: Linguistic differences and, independently of languages, different world views need to be kept in mind in any case when attempting to analyze other languages correctly (cf. Káa 1976). The linguist Mo Káa, for example, criticizes the “Western point of view” from which non-European peoples and their languages are analyzed and often generalized (Káa 1976, p. 85). He points out that grammatical structures such as gender, which are typical for many European languages, are not universal (ibid., p. 85). While European languages are vague and ambiguous regarding grammatical gender (example bridge: German die Brücke (feminine article) versus Spanish el puente (masculine article), with no justification of either gender), many non-European languages have either no distinction in gender, or completely other kinds of “gender” (ibid., p. 85f.). For example, in the American Indian language family of Algonquian, there is no distinction between male or female but, among others, between animate and inanimate (ibid., p. 85f.). Even this categorization is not quite as simple but needs to be explained further since Algonquian speakers have other definitions than Europeans of what is animate and what is not (ibid., p. 86). It also needs to be kept in mind that polar categories and pairs of opposites are a European construct since this is the way European languages are built, and thus European scientists are likely to look for those categories in other languages (ibid., p. 87). Káa points out: “In fact, they cannot even be called 'categories' in the European sense, for the word 'category' is already too much of an absolute generalization” (ibid., p. 90). In short: categories such as animate/inanimate, living/lifeless or with soul/soulless are foreign to Europeans and thus are easily overlooked, or, if discovered, simplified, generalized and, accordingly, misinterpreted. Káa therefore advocates linguistic relativity, since sometimes other languages and their grammar may “evade European logic and perhaps European logic may even deny it” (ibid., p. 92). He states:

“Western linguists have applied their own labels to the genders of American Indian languages, but these labels tell much more about the Western mind and world view than they tell about the American Indian mind or world view. They are a form of projection. The error of such projection is that, completely believing his own labels, the European imagines he is discussing Indian concepts when in reality he is discussing his own. The civilized linguist is doing exactly what he says the primitive 'savage does with words, that is, he imagines that the word he uses is equivalent to the phenomena he is discussing.” (ibid., p. 95)

Hence, one's own origin, view of the world and the environment in which a language developed have to be kept in mind when attempting to understand other languages. As the psycholinguist Nick Enfield puts it: “language is overwhelmingly the dominant semiotic system for humans in the process of creation and maintenance of the social alignment of ideas which we call culture, [… which is why] a theory of language must incorporate culture, and vice versa” (Enfield 2000, p. 126).

As shown, there are supporters and opponents of linguistic relativity. Although Whorf did not research his claims thoroughly and it was proven that language does not limit thought, recent studies reveal that language has at least some effect on thinking, for example on “many of the most fundamental domains of thought including color perception, object categories, conceptions of shape, substance, events, and people's representations of motion, space, causality, time, and number” (Boroditsky 2012, p. 618).

III. Opposing and Supporting Linguistic Relativity – Two Studies

In the following, one study for each position, pro and contra linguistic relativity respectively, will be presented. The first study, opposing linguistic relativity, was done by Jeanette Altarriba and Chi-Shing Tse in 2008. The second study, supporting linguistic relativity, was conducted by Lera Boroditsky in 2010.

At this point, an explanation needs to be provided as to why the first study was chosen, because it can not be introduced in isolation. It is part of an exchange of studies, trying to prove and disprove each other. Thus, it is a good example for the fact that linguistic relativity is a controversial topic. The theory of linguistic relativity and especially of linguistic determinism were very popular until the 1980s, when Alfred Bloom claimed that “Chinese speakers have difficulty with counterfactual thinking” and was proven wrong by Terry Au in 1992 (Altarriba/Tse 2008, p. 336). It was not until 2001 that linguistic relativity was researched again: Lera Boroditsky claimed to have proven linguistic relativity. Boroditsky's findings, though, were doubted by David January and Edward Kako, who repeated her study in 2007 and failed to replicate her findings, thus disconfirming Boroditsky (cf. ibid., p. 335f.). Altarriba/Tse, in turn, criticized January/Kako's approach, deciding to present their own study in 2008, using combined methods from Boroditsky and January/Kako. This study will be presented in this paper, but unavoidably outlining methods and findings from its preceding studies.

It suggests itself to use one of Boroditsky's studies as an example for a study supporting linguistic relativity. In fact, she revised her 2001 study in 2013, together with Vicky Tzuyin Lai, answering January/Kako and Altarriba/Tse and re-proving her findings (see Boroditsky/Lai 2013). But because all the studies following Boroditsky's 2001 study share the same setup, another study by Boroditsky, published in 2010 together with Alice Gaby, will be introduced for the sake of variety. Boroditsky/Gaby researched absolute spatial representations of time featuring speakers of the Indigenous Australians'[1] language Pormpuraaw instead of English and Chinese-English speakers to prove linguistic relativity.


[1] The term “Aborigine” is nowadays considered critically. Therefore, the terms “Indigenous Australian” and “Aboriginal” as an adjective will be used in this paper (cf. New South Wales Government 2004, p. 9).

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Testing Linguistic Relativity. The Rediscovery of a Controversial Theory
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
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Feedback der Dozentin: "This is an excellent piece of work on linguistic relativity - extremely well-written, thought-through, and accumulating information from many different sources. The theoretical overview is enlightened, and the description of the two (well picked) contradicting studies is analytically sharp."
psycholinguistics, linguistic relativity, Whorf, Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis, psycholinguistic analysis, Altarriba, Tse, Boroditsky, Gaby, Psycholinguistik, Linguistische Relativität
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Lena Hahner (Author), 2016, Testing Linguistic Relativity. The Rediscovery of a Controversial Theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/358436


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