Thursday, July 28, 2011

The failure of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

During one of his lectures American anthropologist Franz Boas mentioned that the eskimos knew four different words for snow. What he probably meant was that the word 'eskimo' was abused to round up very different tribes with very different languages.
Later on a very different meaning was given to his intervention: allegedly 'eskimos' as a nation had different words for snow because they were experts on the subject. Western people know shit about snow, so they only use one word. Not only many different tribes exist in the Arctic region with very different languages, but the different Inuit languages are polysynthetic, which means they combine words in a sentence to form a new word. This means that any phrase using the word snow (for example Akuvijarjuak, 'thin ice in the sea' or Akitla, 'snow falling on water') would appear as a new word to an untrained linguist.

The main advocates of this myth were Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis deals with the connection between a given subject and the number of words to describe it.
According to this hypothesis, the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world. So linguistic categories limit and determine or at least affect cognitive realities.
In 1940 Whorf mentioned 7 words for snow. The number kept multiplying, today some even claim 'eskimos' know hundreds of words for snow. Although sadly the hypothesis started from the wrong premises, this does not necessary mean that the concept of linguistic relativity is wrong.

According to Sapir, "the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality" and to Whorf, "we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees".
Maybe this theory should be reformulated in terms of left and right hemispheres. Indeed, although a study from 1969 seemed to disprove the hypothesis by stating the perception of color is independent from the semantic processes classifying those colors, "Recent studies have shown that color perception is particularly prone to linguistic relativity effects when processed in the left brain hemisphere".

Maybe Sapir and Whorf proved their theory by developing it. No other culture seems prone to develop new linguistic theories as the Western world does. I wonder if the theory could be translated in an inuit language.

Sources
Marcel Hulspas: "Klinkklare wetenschap" p136
Linguistic relativity on Wikipedia
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

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