According to several linguists, there is a certain kind of relationship between sense, Language, and a non-linguistic world of experiences, and the way we, humans, deal with them in our language. We use language to categories the objectives and items around us with the help of language. Language and the objects of the world are interrelated, they cannot be separated and thus our world is mostly determined by the language we speak.

The anthropologist, Bronisław Kasper Malinowski, stated that people name objects by picking up words from those parts of the language which are relevant to them while another scholar, Sapir, argued that the world is built upon the language habits of the group of people who speak it.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that we are unaware of the background characters of our language similarly as we are unaware of the presence of the air until it vanishes and a person begins to choke.

The linguistic relativity principle (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis[1]) is the idea that the varying cultural concepts and categories inherent in different languages affect the cognitive classification of the experienced world in such a way that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it.

This hypothesis—a position of linguistic relativity—argues that (to quote one of its authors) language ‘is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but is itself a shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s meaningful activity’. In short, language determines (or shapes) our perceptions of reality. Whorf further argues that there is no real division between English nouns and verbs and it makes no sense that why we use a noun for: Lightning, spark, wave, flame, storm, and so on.

There are languages like American Indian languages which have no distinction of verb and noun at all.

There is a house (English)
A home occurs (Translated)

Hopi has one word for insect, pilot, and plane while Eskimo has four different words for snow. Similarly, the language Arabic has a various number of words for one entity and that is a “camel”.

The Hopi time controversy

The Hopi time controversy is the academic debate about how the Hopi language grammaticalizes the concept of time, and about whether the differences between the ways the English and the Hopi language describes time are an example of linguistic relativity or not. In popular discourse, the debate is often framed as a question about whether the Hopi “have a concept of time”, despite it now being well established that they do.

The debate originated in the 1940s when American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that the Hopi conceptualized time differently from the Standard Average European speaker and that this difference correlated with grammatical differences between the languages.[1]

Whorf argued that Hopi has “no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time'”, and concluded that the Hopi had “no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through the present, into a past”.[2]

Whorf used the Hopi concept of time as a primary example of his concept of linguistic relativity, which posits that the way in which individual languages encode information about the world, influences and correlates with the cultural world view of the speakers. Whorf’s relativist views fell out of favor in linguistics and anthropology in the 1960s, but Whorf’s statement lived on in the popular literature often in the form of an urban myth that “the Hopi have no concept of time”.

Palmer View

According to Frank Palmer, Whorf’s arguments do not stand on firm grounds because if a language shapes our thoughts it means that one would not have the same picture of the universe as the speaker of other languages. Similarly, we often find difficulty in translating a language into another but we never fail to translate though there are certain things that do not match.

Palmer also argues that much of Whorf’s arguments are invalid because he only claims from specific observable grammatical characteristics to a model of the universe. The model that he presents of the language of Hopi is based on a verbal system but if we analyze English more closely we can also state that English also has no concept of time.

If we study English in terms of Tense, we can find only two tenses only, present and past. The past tense does not determine past time because if we look at the following example, we can see that the past tense is also used for unreality.

Example: I went there yesterday
If I went tomorrow

It has also suggested by some linguists that English does not have a past tense at all rather it is a “remote” tense to indicate what is remote in time and in reality. Thus it is clear that grammatical structures of a language tells us little about our way of thinking about the world.

Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis provides useful information that the categories we employ do not simply exist in the world of experience. It is also not certainly true that languages determine our world but we can at least distinguish clearly between what is in the world and what is in the language.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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