Linguistic Relativity: Sapir-Whorf or Boas-Jakobson?

Interviewing an aboriginal elder by the name of Djalalingba in Australia’s Northern Territory, David Quammen, a “Balanda” or white guy, attempts to gain some insight into the connection the Yolngu people have with the healthy population of local predators that patrol the region’s waterways, Bäru or crocodiles:

“Balanda people don’t understand the Yolngu connection to Bäru, he says.  “They only think: only animal.”  Noticing me scribbling notes, Djalalingba shrugs impatiently. No no no, foolish man, you can’t learn anything from a short visit, you can’t grab these truths and carry them off. Have you come a long way? Yes, I say, from America.  He nods.  Well, the only way you could grasp Yolngu beliefs, he says would be by spending the years necessary to enter Yolngu culture through Yolngu language.

Undeniably true, I think–and sadly impossible, within the scope of what I’m trying to do.  (Before tackling Yolngu, I would need also to learn Gujarati, in order to see the lion through Maldhari eyes, and then there would be Romanian, for the brown bear, and then Udege for the tiger, and then…) But I don’t offer this lame excuse to Djalingba.  I merely set my notebook aside, to avoid causing hum further aggravation.”

David Quammen in “Monster of God” p. 192

I come across passages like this from time to time which express an almost mythical imagining of how languages stand as portals into other strange worlds of perception, lamenting at the impossibility of ever understanding the ‘encapsulated universes’ people inhabit as a result of the languages they speak.

Probably one of the most famous examples of the strange worlds people with different languages might occupy is that of the Eskimo’s extra-large vocabulary for that frozen white stuff…

Linguistic relativity and zombie language:-)

However, in his essay on the topic, this is what G.K. Pullum called, “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax,” (click link for PDF) and as most linguists you ask are quick to note, the notion that Eskimos categorize their snowy world into a much richer lexicographic landscape simply because they have to deal with the white stuff so much, was originally spawned from a brief passage written by Benjamin Whorf in 1940, and,

“was quoted and reprinted in more subsequent books than you could shake a flamethrower at; the creature was already loose and regenerating itself all over the ship” – G.K. Pullum (1991)

But Pullum’s ultimate goal with tracking the historical unfolding of the ‘Eskimo vocab-creature’s’ regeneration through the space ship of academia, was not so much to deubunk the myth of a huge Eskimo vocabulary for snow, but rather to illustrate that,

“the tragedy (of the great Eskimo hoax) is not that so many people got the facts wildly wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy land and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are.”

Fairly strong words but when it comes to getting our facts straight, especially with a topic brimming to the top with all sorts of wild ideas, he’s got a very good point.

Does the language(s) you speak influence the way you think? And if so, how and to what degree?

Does the way we describe and relate to time in English in a variety of ways that seem to stem from our common aphorism that “time is money,” to take one tiny example, influence our more abstract notions of time? “Spend time, waste time, save time, buy time…etc…” Do you have particular habits of thinking, and how is this related to the language you speak, if at all?

And if we didn’t have language, would we think much differently, or would be able to think at all?

It’s hard to avoid talking about language and thought without mentioning the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that epically controversial hypothesis named after a linguist and his mentor, which continues to rumble around in the world of academic language studies constantly being revived, declared dead or transformed or abstracted to accommodate the development radically new understandings of language, at least in the field of applied linguistics.

By now, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has become what I like to think of as a ‘Vampire Hypothesis,’ an idea that continues to engage our imagination and which refuses to die through each generation…rendered immortal by our fascination with it, haunting and mesmerizing the populace indefinitely.

In a nutshell, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis seeks to explain two things: linguistic relativity and linguistic diversity.  Rather than offer up my own explanation, I’ll just toss out a few memorable quotations from the duo that kindled one of the most controversial debates in the study of language: Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

(Note: I should add that there’s a lot of intellectual mud to wade through in coming to a better understanding of this topic, partly because of the misunderstandings and misrepresentations fueling the fire of this “controversy,” so in this post, I’ll just be laying out some interesting ideas as a nice shrubbery foundation for future pruning and ornamentation :-).

The linguist Edward Sapir kicks off the linguistic relativity ball with the following provocative statement:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.  It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection…

The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.  – Edward Sapir in “The Status of Linguistics as a Science,’ Language, Vol.5 pp. 209-210

Don’t worry, those gasoline drums are ‘empty!’

Picking up the linguistic relativity ball, Benjamin Whorf provided the now famous ‘empty gasoline drum’ example in giving an instance of how language influences human beings’ behavior in interacting with the world.

“…around a storage of what are called “gasoline drums,” behavior will tend to a certain type, that is, great care will be exercised; while around a storage of what are called “empty gasoline drums” it will tend to be different-careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about. Yet the “empty” drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor. Physically the situation is hazardous, but the linguistic analysis according to regular analogy must employ the word “empty,” which inevitably suggests lack of hazard.”

Whorf goes on…

“Thus our linguistically determined thought world not only collaborates with our cultural idols and ideals, but engages even our unconscious personal reactions in its patterns and gives them certain typical characters….Very many of the gestures made by English-speaking people at least, and probably by all SAE (Standard American English) speakers, serve to illustrate, by a movement in space, not a real spatial reference but one of the nonspatial references that our language handles by metaphors of imaginary space.

That is, we are more apt to make a grasping gesture when we speak of grasping an elusive idea than when we speak of grasping a doorknob. The gesture seeks to make a metaphorical and hence somewhat unclear reference more clear. But, if a language refers to nonspatials without implying a spatial analogy, the reference is not made any clearer by gesture. The Hopi gesture very little, perhaps not at all in the sense we understand as gesture.”  – Whorf, 1941

Whorf’s illustration of the difference between the English and Shawnee gestalt construction of cleaning a gun with a ramrod. From the article “Language and Science”, originally published in ther MIT technology Review, 1940. Image copyright of MIT Press.

Commenting on Whorf’s tantalizing remarks on the influence of language on thought and behavior, especially with Whorf’s controversial claims about the Hopi language, Terrence Deacon argues,

“Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that different languages might be so radically divergent that many basic modes of thinking expressed in one might be found to be utterly untranslatable. I think , in contrast, we should not be surprised by the extent to which even high-level conceptual patterns of linguistic representation and discourse share near-universal features in most languages, simply because we are all members of the same species, sharing many common perceptual, behavioral, and emotional biases.”

– Deacon, The Symbolic Species, 1997, p. 121

Deacon’s point begins touching on the notion of linguistic diversity, tying the notion to linguistic relativity.  John A. Lucy gives us a nice compact way to think of this relation:

“The diversity of human language has long given rise to speculation about its sources and consequences.  Why do languages render the same reality so differently and what are the consequences of those differences for human thought?  These two questions are in fact intimately related: how we understand language diversity, the ways languages differ in their renderings of reality, greatly affects our approach to understanding linguistic relativity, the effect of linguistic diversity on thought.”

–Lucy, J. (2005) Through the Window of Language (PDF)

50 shades of blue and sexy syntax

I can already see this post is not going to stay bounded within the limits I usually like to set, but it’s just too much nerdy fun to stop now!

Lucy’s essay is a kick to read, and a very important distinction he makes in explaining the kind of research being done to understand how language influences thought and thus our interpretation of reality is between domain-centered and structure -centered approaches

Domain-centered approaches to uncovering how the window of language affects our perception of reality involve investigating a ‘domain of experience’ (such as color or time or space). These experiences of color and space are explored a bit more in depth in Guy Deutscher’s 2010 book Through the Language Glass, pointing to research on how Russian speakers and English speakers view colors (blue shades in particular) differently or how the Guugu Yumithirr navigate their environment by reference to the cardinal directions rather than ‘left or right’ (i.e. the coffee cup is north-east of the book).  On a side note, Lera Boroditsky is an up and coming pop-researcher who has been steadily pumping out presentations, research, and books on the topic, and constantly touring the country (I got a chance to see her speak in Dallas, Texas this year!).

On the other hand, we have the structure-centered approaches which investigate a certain grammatical structure, like number, gender or aspect.  In writing about “sex and syntax” or the affect of gender on thought, Deutscher colorfully animates the role gender may play in our thought processes with this passage:

Languages that treat inanimate objects as “he” or “she” force their speakers to talk about such objects with the same grammatical forms that are applied to men and women.  This habit of he-ing and she-ing objects means that an association between an inanimate noun and one of the sexes is shoved down the speakers’ ears whenever they hear the name of this object, and the same association is pushed up their throats whenever they have occasion to mention his or her name themselves. (p. 208)

This last passage from Deutscher echoes an important transition towards getting a better hold on how language could possibly influence our thought and behavior.  In order to do this, Deutscher expounds,”we need to abandon the so-called Sapir-Whorf  hypothesis…and turn instead to…the Boas-Jakobson principle” (named after the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, and the linguist Roman Jakobson).

So, in a nutshell, if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis tells us that “languages limit their speakers’ ability to express or understand (certain) concepts,” the Boas-Jackobson principle tells us that:

“Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” (Roman Jakobson, 1959, 236, quoted in Deutscher, 2010, p. 151)


So going back to one of the first posts I wrote on attention, you might say that language influences thought not so much in what your particular language lets you pay attention to, but rather what your language makes you pay attention to.  Ortega y Gasset’s supposed quip takes on a bit different meaning when we keep the Boas-Jakobson principle in mind:

 “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”

– José Ortega y Gasset?? (no source)

And what if you are bilingual, trilingual, etc… Are you the inhabitant of a multi-verse?

To be continued…

UPDATE: 2/1/2014

Aneta Pavlenko is coming out with a new book on the topic (The Bilingual Mind) and it looks like it will be an interesting read! I’ll be sure to update this post after I give it a read!


If you liked this post…

…you might like this one on attention, this one on Franz Boas, or this one about Karl Popper’s ideas on language.

sources I used for this post:

David Quammen, Monster of God, 2005

G.K. Pullum, The Great Eskimo Hoax, 1991 (PDF)

Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language, in Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, 1956, pp. 134-160

John A. Lucy, Through the Window of Language: Assessing the influence of Language Diversity on Thought, 2005 (PDF)

Other stuff worth checking out on the topic!

John Gumperz and Stephen Levinson (eds) (1996) Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Paul Kay, and Willet Kempton (1984) What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? American Anthropologist, 86(1): 65-79

Daniel Everett, (2005) “Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã: Another look at the design features of human language.  (PDF)

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2003) Metaphors we live by.

The featured image was taken last week on Oahu, Hawaii, during a big swell, you can see Diamond Head in the distance!

China Walls

2 responses to “Linguistic Relativity: Sapir-Whorf or Boas-Jakobson?

  1. Pingback: Charles Goodwin: Professional Vision | Leaky Grammar·

  2. Please have a look at my book “Linguistic Relativities: Language Diversity and Modern Thought” (Cambridge, 2011). In fact, neither Sapir nor Whorf ever argued that your language limits what it is possible to think–in my view, at least, both of them, like Jakobson, were good Boasians in this regard. Thanks, John Leavitt

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