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Linguistic Relativism and Linguistic Determinism Analysis

Benjamin Lee Whorf, a student of the noted anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir, was a fire insurance investigator as well as a linguist. He was struck by the way that labels could influence people’s behavior. Which is more dangerous, a gasoline drum filled with gasoline or an empty one? A number of spectacular fires convinced Whorf that people thought of empty drums as perfectly safe. They acted as though the word empty really meant empty. An empty gasoline drum is one, which is empty in only one sense: it once held gasoline but now does not. It still contains invisible but highly volatile fumes. Empty drums are in fact more likely to explode than filled ones. From observations like this and from his work with American Indian languages, Whorf became convinced that the language we use influences the way we think and act. He extended this notion to include the syntax of the language itself as a major determiner of our conceptual world. Different languages talk about the world in different ways, and so impose different conceptions of reality upon different speakers. This has become known as the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Whorf's teacher Sapir characterized the relationship between language and conceptions of reality in a very precise and detailed manner. Sapir believed that 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. “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation (Sapir, 1968)

If this is the fact of the matter and if languages differ from one another in ways that are critical for conceptual development, then at least one form of the linguistic relativity hypothesis would be correct. If people speak different languages, then they will think differently. This hypothesis depends upon the truth of two separate assertions. First, language itself is a critical factor in the development of our conceptions of reality and the maintenance of certain ways of thinking about the world. This is an assertion of Linguistic Determinism, namely that language shapes thought. Second, linguistic relativity is a separate assertion. According to Whorf, languages do, in fact, differ in just those ways that produce differences in conceptual development and differences in adult modes of thought. If two people speak different languages, linguistic determinism alone might be operative, and yet the two people could still think in precisely the same ways and have precisely the same conceptions of reality. In contrast, the linguistic relativity hypothesis would assert that because the languages are different, the thought must be different too. To what extent is each of these assertions true? Since linguistic relativity depends upon linguistic determinism, let us consider linguistic determinism first. Pinker, on the other side, argues that at least four lines of evidence can be cited to dispose of the “thought- is speech” notion rather quickly. First, non-speaking animals display rather complex thought processes, both in the laboratory and in the wild. Second, non-speaking humans “display relatively normal conceptual development prior to systematic language training” (Pinker, 1996). Third, adults who lose speech as a result of brain damage, or who temporarily lose speech as a result of temporary paralysis, can still think. They can solve abstract problems, do arithmetic, reason logically, and so on. Finally, thought can be completely nonverbal.

A more reasonable form of linguistic determinism is that the culture of a community is transmitted to children primarily via the speech of others. A child’s conception of the physical and social world develops out of two kinds of experiences, direct and mediated. The direct experience consists of what he perceives as well as what he does. The mediated experience consists of what others tell him about people and the world. From their visual properties he may categorize bananas and carrots into one group and apples in another. From eating experience, all three belong in the category of edible things. Most of us would group bananas and apples together, with carrots belonging to another group of edibles. This particular categorization is mediated through interpersonal experience in the form of language. Bananas and apples are both labeled fruit. That thought is language, or even that language completely controls or determines thought, is too strong to be correct. But a weak form of linguistic determinism probably operates: language influences thought, especially when we do not consciously avoid the restrictive nature of language. Languages can and do differ from one another in at least two ways- lexically and grammatically. Lexical differences involve the ways in which things are labeled, and this can include the number of labels or words for things, the ways in which concepts are categorized, and the presence or absence of super-ordinate categories. An oft-quoted example of lexical differences between languages is the number of words for snow. The Eskimos have many words for the different varieties of snow; we have only one. Similarly, Arabs have more than 20 words for camel; we have just one. Even something as physically real as the color spectrum can be lexically categorized in quite different ways. Pinker shows that not only the number of categories, but also the locations of the boundaries between labeled color regions, can vary considerably across languages. Even something as universal as the rainbow can be divided up in more or less arbitrary fashion.

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Many researchers take the view that the language acquisition process is continuous in the sense that the acquisition device analyzes experience in terms of the same notions and relations at all stages of development. In the contemporary literature, the Linguistic Relativity theory is often associated with UG-based theories of acquisition, where it is taken to entail that the entire system of UG is available from the beginning of the acquisition process (Pinker 1994). While this theory predicts that both the word order parameter and the domain parameter are available to the language learner from the beginning of the acquisition process, it does not require that the correct value be immediately determined. Rather, choice of the appropriate option is taken to require interaction with experience. The second major type of determinism permitted by continuity theories involves lexical acquisition. According to Pinker, the fact that children under age 3 generally do not use complementizers such as whether, that, and for reflects a gap in the lexicon rather than a syntactic deficit. In addition to the emergence of specific vocabulary items, lexical acquisition may also involve the discovery of special properties associated with individual words. The verb promise, for example, is unusual among object-taking verbs in having its subject serve as antecedent for the understood subject of its complement clause. In sum, Pinker argues that Linguistic Relativity theory of development takes the view that a full-fledged Universal Grammar is available from the earliest stages of language acquisition. Syntactic development is essentially limited to the selection of parametric options (from a predetermined set) and to the acquisition of lexical items (including any idiosyncratic properties that might have syntactic consequences). However, Pinker’s theory is not without its problems. Perhaps the single greatest challenge facing this theory involves developmental facts that seem to fall outside existing accounts of parameter setting or lexical acquisition. We have already seen that the Determinism theory attributes the late emergence of complementizers to a lexical deficit, but we have not addressed the question of why this deficit should affect complementizers rather than, say, adjectives. Pinker suggests that children’s production of utterances with missing verbs and prepositions (e.g., Mommy eat apple; I sit on chair) during early multiword speech reflects processing limitations rather than the mistaken assumption that these categories are optional. Pinker (1987) suggest that “children’s poor performance on passives in many experimental situations is due to the operation of a processing strategy that can actually override grammatical knowledge in many situations”.

In some cases, it is even suggested that the design of experiments used to test children's knowledge of particular patterns triggers processing strategies that interfere with the operation of grammatical mechanisms. For instance, it has been noted that act- out tests for relative clause comprehension typically do not provide a set of entities from which a subset is selected with the help of the relative clause. Thus, the props used to test a sentence such as The cow pushed the dog that kissed the rabbit typically include a single dog rather than a set of dogs from which the one that kissed the rabbit can be chosen. Pinker proposes that this flaw- rather than a grammatical deficit- contributes to children’s frequent misinterpretation of relative clause patterns as coordinate structures.

According to Miyamoto, inference is a process of thought that leads from one set of propositions to another. Typically, it proceeds from several premises to a single conclusion. Inferences help to tie the discourse together, acting as bridges from one sentence to the next.

We make Implicit inferences automatically, almost involuntarily, and often without being aware of what people are doing. For example, There was a fault in the signaling circuit. The crash led to the deaths of ten passengers. Ten passengers were killed in the crash. The text does not make this assertion. We jumped to a conclusion based partly on the content of the passage and partly on our general knowledge. However, if the sentence continues as “because they were arrested after the accident, and subsequently shot as spies”, one develops a totally different perception of the whole matter. Miyamoto argues that we are not Logical Thinkers (or at least not as logical thinkers as Pinker claims) due to the fact the human logical thinking cannot be universalized or rationalized on the common basis. In other words, one person sees a simple chronology of events whereas the other one attempts to develop a complex theory comprising the detailed description of all these subjects. Miyamoto concentrates on the notion that there is nothing absolute in this world. Linguistic Relativism becomes even more complex theory in this researcher’s eyes because he takes the language perception and forming to a characteristically new level of assessment, appraisal, and evaluation.

Anglin, J. M.(1999) The growth of word meaning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Bereiter, C., & Engelmann, S.(1997). Teaching disadvantaged children in the pre-school. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall- reprinted edition.

Bever, T. G. (1970).The cognitive basis for linguistic structures. In J. R. Hayes (Ed.), Cognition and the development of language. New York: Wiley.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

Philipson, Gerry (1973). Speaking “like A Man” in Teamsterville: Culture Patterns Of Role Enactment in an Urban Neighborhood. Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 61

Pinker, Steven.(1994) The Language Instinct. New York: Penguin.

Thomas, O. (1999). Transformational grammar and the teacher of English. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston- reprinted edition.

Treisman, A. M. (1965). “The effects of redundancy and familiarity on translating and repeating back a foreign and a native language”. British Journal of Psychology, 56.

Trenholm, S., & Jenson (2000). Interpersonal Communication, 4th Edition. Albany, NY: Wadworth Publishing Company.

Tulving, E. Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of memory. New York: Academic Press, 1972. Pp. 381-403.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1991). Thought and language, Translated by E. Hanfmann and G. Vakar. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Whorf, B. L. (1956) Languages and logic. In J. B. Carroll (Ed.), Language, thought and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Wickens, D. D.(1970). Encoding categories of words: An empirical approach to meaning. Psychological Review, 1970, vol., 77.

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