Crying Whorf – Through the Language Glass – How Words Colour your World – Guy Deutscher 2010

The essay focusses on the beliefs of linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, both of which developed the idea of ‘linguistic relativity’, they claimed that the structure of a language affects the way in which it’s respective speakers think about and perceive the world around them, the author of this essay discusses this idea and gives insight to reasons why today it is seen as ‘farfetched’ or ‘bogus’ but also how the notion of language affecting thought isn’t something that should be dismissed completely.

Notable examples

  • Nootka language – There is no verb that corresponds to the English verb ‘to fall’ when describing the state of a specific falling object, this language however uses the verb ‘to stone’ for example to refer to the movement of a stone in particular. This verb is combine with the word ‘down’ to describe the act of the stone falling. Therefore in Nootka the act of a stone falling would be translated as ‘It stones down’. This is clearly different to the English interpretation, this arises the question of; does this mean that speakers of different languages with this degree of variation see things differently to each other?
  • Hopi language – Whorf made Hopi famous as he stated that it had ‘no concept of time’ and ‘has zero dimensions’ e.g. he said they do not say “I stayed for five days” but “I left on the fifth day”. He then went on to claim that someone who has only ever known this language and the cultural ideas of their own society would be unlikely to share the same notions of time and space that we have. I think the author disagrees with Whorf as he mentions how Whorf did no actual fieldwork on this language and used information he found out though a Hopi informant in NYC. The author also mentions how a book written by Ekkehart Malotki disputes his research by providing numerous expressions for time used within the Hopi language.
  • The Matses tribe – Their language was discovered by David Fleck who found that it compels them to make distinctions of ‘mind-blowing subtlety’ whenever they report on events. E.g. the three degree of pastness found in the Matses language; You cannot just say that someone ‘passed by there.’, you have to specify with verb endings whether this even took place in the recent past (up to a month ago), the distant past (from around a month ago to fifty years), or the remote past (more than fifty years ago). In the Matses language if an event in reported but the incorrect verb form is used, what they are saying is considered a lie and an event cannot be reported in the present tense. This language shows how different languages can vary in the kinds of information that they oblige their speakers to convey. The author doesn’t agree that the Matses think differently because of their language as he mentions who, despite their required amount of detail we can still understand them and can easily express them in English.
  • What other theorists does the author refer to?

Wilhelm Von Humboldt – He travelled to Spain in 1799 and was intrigued with the Basque people and their language as it differed greatly to the other European languages, described as ‘being from a different stock’. Once home, he decided to look into this new language but came up short after finding little to no reliable information, thus deciding to carry out serious fieldwork in attempt to learn the language first hand. During this experience he began to realise the extent to which the structure of the language diverged from everything else he knew and from what he had previously taken as the only natural from of grammar. This unveiled to him that not all languages derived from Latin. He then went on to look into other remote languages and argued that ‘The differences between languages, is not only in sounds and signs but in world view. Herein is found the reason and ultimate goal of all the study of language’ and ‘Thinking is dependent not just on language in general but to a certain extent on each individual language.’ He also claimed that grammatical differences not only reflect pre-existing differences in thought but are responsible for shaping these differences in the first place. I think the author neither fully agrees or disagrees with his findings, for example he notes how, due to what we now know today, Humboldt’s findings ‘barely scratched the surface’, therefore I believe the author may agree with some of what Humboldt argued but see’s what other have found since to be of higher value.

Franz Boas – In 1938 he made an observations about the role of grammar in language, writing that ‘grammar performs another important function in addition to determining the relationship between words in a sentence. That it determines the aspects of each experience that must be expressed.’  He also said that obligatory aspects vary greatly between languages.’ – I think the author agrees with this idea as later on in the text he builds on it how to show that what a language allows you to say with the words provided is not necessarily linked to ones understanding of the world.

Six important quotations:

Our mother tongue determines the way we think and perceive the world” – Here the author is showing the view of Sapir and Whorf which he then goes on to explain is an ‘idea of disgrace”, as he does not believe this is true, the rest of the essay is centred on this view.

So there is a profound difference in the way our languages express the event of raining, but does this mean that you and I have to experience rain in a different way?” – Here the author is using rhetorical questions to provoke the reader to think about what he is saying. As mentioned many languages have different ways of saying things but it is likely that they don’t experience or think about the situation they are talking about in a different way to someone of a different mother tongue, as Sapir and Whorf believed.

Do Germans, whose language uses one and the same word for ‘when’ and ‘if’, fail to understand the difference between what might happen and what will happen?” – Here the author is once again using rhetorical questions as a means of going against Sapir and Whorfs belief, as it would seem absurd that a language as popular and advanced as German would not allow its speakers to understand the difference between when and if.

The crucial differences between languages are not in what each language allows its speakers to express – for in theory any language could express anything – but in what information each language obliges its speakers to express” – This quote shows that the differences in mother tongue do not affect the way in which people think, however the way in which the language allows them to put forward their thoughts changes between languages due to how the language allows them to say it.

Do you find the authors argument convincing?

Yes I think the author convincingly argues reasons why Sapir and Whorfs beliefs cannot be taken as seriously in the modern world. He has found counter arguments against Whorfs beliefs such as the Hopi language not possessing a concept of time and has continuously used his own opinions throughout with reasons or examples as to why something is or isn’t true, by showing evidence of his points through examples this makes the essay appear legitimate and therefore convincing. He uses the example of the word ‘factivity’, stating that unless you are a professional linguist you would not know of or understand this word, but this does not mean that your mother tongue prevents you from understanding it and as there is no evidence that any language forbids its speakers from thinking anything, the individual mother tongue cannot be said to influence what a speaker can or cannot think.

Other Key Quotations:

Since language is the forming organ of thought, there must be an intimate relation between the laws of grammar and the laws of thinking” – Wilhelm von Humboldt

This quote from Humboldt again supports the Sapir-Whorf theory of language, saying that our grammar is influencing how we think.

Hopi time has zero dimensions” “It cannot be given a number greater than 1” instead of “I stayed 5 days” “I left on the 5th day

From Whorf’s studies on the Hopi that back up his argument of language changing the way we think, because of Hopi language having a different set of words for the concept of time, they do not see it the same way as English speakers do but still can understand it

Thinking” he concluded, “is dependent not just on language in general but to a certain extent on each individual language” – Humboldt

Humboldt’s quote again supports the theory, saying that thinking is based on each different language, rather than just language in general, saying that different languages affect how people think

The real difference between languages, [Humbolt] argued, are not in what a language is able to express but rather in what it encourages and stimulates its speakers to do from its own inner force.”

Deutscher again quotes Humboldt in saying that each language “simulates” its speaker to do something based on its “inner force” for example, think differently, and that is how languages should be differentiated, this also explains how different languages do not change how someone views the world, but the language that they use does

“So there is a profound difference in the way our languages express the idea of “raining”, but does this mean that you and I have to experience rain in a different way?”

With this quote Deutscher is almost questioning Sapir-Whorf’s theory, by saying that even though languages express raining “differently” people who speak different languages do not think of rain any differently (disagree with strong SW)

One of the common arguments against the strong Sapir-Whorf theory is that if each language represents a different reality and creates different thoughts, how can work be translated from one language to another? Yet essays / books and so forth are translated regularly with ease. But the weak theory…


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