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Culture and language

Edward Sapir (1884-1939) German, emigrated to USA as a child; student of Boas; mainly a linguist but while mainstream linguists was dominated by the rigorous empiricism, behaviourism and anti-semanticism of Bloomfield (and later by the formalism of Chomsky), Sapir (like Jakobson, secs. [*] and [*]) studied meaning and had much influence on anthropology - this division between the two disciplines persists till today. Sapir influenced thousands of students - a collection of essays Culture, Language and Personality is dedicated to him.

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) American Chemical engineer, fire insurance inspector (noticed that empty fuel drums were perceived as less dangerous because of the connotations of the word ``empty''); thence linguist and anthropologist; student of Sapir; studied Mayan hieroglyphics and the Hopi language.

Extended Sapir's ideas to our basic notions of space, time, matter - the Kantian categories. Hopi speakers do not use tense; have no concept of time as an objective entity (had been recorded by Boas in 1911 ?). Later studies of the Hopi found that though past, present or future do not exist in their languages, two other tenses do: ``manifested'' (physically) and ``becoming manifested'' (not perceived by the senses). (Whorf's database consisted of just one Hopi speaker, he too living in New York city - see Pinker's criticism in The Language Instinct.)

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: Content and structure of a language strongly determine the content and structure of that culture.

Two aspects of S-W hypothesis: Linguistic determinism and Linguistic relativity.

Linguistic Determinism: the language we use (to some extent) determines the way in which we view and think about the world around us.

Strong linguistic determinism - the Weltanschauung (world-view) hypothesis - or equation of language and thought, had been proposed by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). Implies a platonic view of language, as something that evolved of its own accord. From the modern linguistics viewpoint, this would make language learning by children impossible.

Linguistic relativity: distinctions encoded in one language are unique to that language: eg. a colour spectrum containing no intrinsic boundries is split up arbitrarily by different languages.

Strong linguistic relativity would imply that translation between languages is impossible. Borrowing of words from one language to another would also be impossible.

``We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organised by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organise it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organisation and classification of data which the agreement decrees.'' - Whorf: Language, Thought and Reality

This and the earlier Sapir quote are taken from (authenticity not checked).

After the work of Eleanor Rosch the strong form of the S-W hypothesis is no more tenable. (To be done in Concepts and categories, semester 2)

next up previous contents
Next: Culture and personality approach Up: Anthropology Lecture 2 Previous: Anthropology Lecture 2   Contents