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Module 4: Linguistic Relativity

General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language-Behavior
General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language Behavior was developed and presented on the Canvas Network by Steve Stockdale, Mary Lahman, and Greg Thompson. It is reproduced here under terms of the Creative Commons Share Alike License as published on Canvas Network from 13 January – 24 February 2014. This page is very long and will take longer to download.


Module 4 Pages

Linguistic Relativity | What We Do With Language | How Language Shapes Thought | Implications of Linguistic Relativity
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources


Module Map – led by Greg Thompson

Structural DifferentialIn Module 1 we were introduced to the structural differential and the central problematic of General Semantics: the process of abstracting. In this Module, led by Greg Thompson, we will focus on using cross-cultural comparisons in order to provide real world examples of how language affects thought.

The idea that language affects thought has been called the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – after linguistic anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Relativity Effects can be seen in terms of:

  1. Effects of speaking a particular language on how one perceives the world.
  2. Effects of speaking a particular language on how one interacts with the world.
  3. Effects of speaking human language in the first place (sign language counts as a human language!), as opposed to not speaking a human language at all.

In this module, we will be focusing on the first two types of effects, but it should be noted that the third effect of language is exactly what Korzybski was talking about in his concept of time binding. Language is an instrument of time-binding. And written langauge is particularly powerful in this regard. While there are many examples of non-literate cultures passing down traditions through oral language, written language even further expands our ability to transmit knowledge across great distances of time and space (and indeed it is this very work in which we are presently engaged!).

Description of Module

First, we begin with an overview explanation of what we mean by linguistic relativity on the page titled Language, Thought, and Behavior.

In What We Do With Language – And What It Does With Us, Bruce Kodish provides an excellent overview of Linguistic Relativity and its relevance to General Semantics. He effectively rebuts some of the specific criticisms of LRH by Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker.

The module will be focused around a video presentation by University of California San Diego (UCSD) psycholinguist Lera Boroditsky, How Language Shapes Thought. In this engaging lecture, Dr. Boroditsky provides an outline of the general argument of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis as well as a number of very rich examples of how language could affect how we understand the world around us.

After you’ve viewed the presentation, you can share your Reactions to Lera Boroditsky in a graded discussion.

Next, I explain the Relativity in Linguistic Relativity, focusing on examples of cultural relativity, followed by Implications of Linguistic Relativity.

The module concludes with two graded assignments: 1) a discussion that asks you to share a personal example of how language shaped your thinking; and 2) a short 250-word essay on a controversial cultural practice.

Don’t overlook the Optional Readings page with links to PDF articles you can download.

Thoughout the week, please review and contribute to the Module 4 General Discussion.

I should note that there are serious challenges to doing this kind of cross-linguistic work. First and foremost, we all have very different experiences with language. Some of us are monoglots (like me!), and some of us are bi- or multi-lingual. But there are no two languages that all of us share. This makes it difficult for us to use any two languages for comparison since only a subset of us will know those two languages well enough to understand the examples. This means that we will tend to treat more superficial examples of language effects (e.g. the effects of lexical items in one language vs. another), and will make it difficult to treat more complex examples of language effects (e.g., the effects of grammatical categories).

I am very excited about hearing people’s own personal experiences with bi- or multi-lingualism and what kinds of effects you have observed. So please be sure to participate in the discussions so that we will have some meaty first-hand examples of how speaking a language might affect other aspects of our behavior.

Language, Thought, and Behavior – authored by Greg Thompson

Structural Differential

This week we are considering the relationship of language, thought, and behavior. In particular, we consider this using the comparative method. We will look at different languages and how these different languages affect how we think about and behave in the world.

Put slightly differently, this module considers how different maps can map the ‘same’ territory in a potentially indefinite number of ways.

Here we return again to the structural differential as a way of understanding how language functions to interpret the world for us.

We will be focused on the level that is most relevant to the actual formal features of the language that we use, namely the level of Description.

In this module, we will see how the different languages can give us different descriptions of the same reality.

In this unit, we will consider examples taken from a number of different languages that can help us to see how the language we speak can affect how we understand the world around us.

Beyond Eskimos and their 10/100/1000 Words for Snow: The Sapir-Whorf(-Korzybski?) Hypothesis

Did you know that suburban white males have over 100 words for ‘lawn’?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (LRH), refers to the claim that the language that you speak will affect the way that you understand the world around you. The first to formally forward this hypothesis were Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf. Although Sapir first formulated the hypothesis, it was Whorf who was most active in researching the claim.

English examples of Linguistic Relativity

I’ll begin the discussion with some of the classic examples from Whorf’s work as a fire insurance claims adjuster. (Yes, Whorf was a leisure-scholar — meaning he had a full time job and studied language in his free time. Note that this is a point that many of his detractors cite as evidence that he wasn’t a serious scholar. Based on what you’ve learned so far, is this a reasonable inference? Perhaps it would be better to actually read his work and then decide?)

In his work as an insurance claims adjuster, Whorf was responsible for looking into the origins of fires (ostensibly so that the insurance company see if there was justification for them to not pay out the claim). In his line of work, it was generally accepted that one need only look into the physical situation in order to understand what “caused” the fire. Yet, in his work, Whorf came to the belief that it was not just the “physical situation” that caused the fire, but that the meaning of the situation was critical, and that, more specifically, the linguistic meaning or the label applied to the situation was critical to understanding the cause of the fire. Below are some of his examples.

  1. People working around “gasoline drums” will be extremely careful and cautious while people working around “empty gasoline drums” will not. The sense that they are “empty” suggests that they pose no harm. And thus, as Whorf discovered, a worker may with no concern, flick a cigarette stub into one of these “empty gasoline drums.” The results are, well, explosive. This, it turns out, is because “empty gasoline drums” in fact contain highly explosive vapors.
  2. At another plant, metal containers were insulated on the outside with “spun limestone”. Seeing that it was “limestone” (i.e., “stone”), workers made no attempt to protect it from heat or flame. Yet, it turned out that this material reacted with the chemical fumes inside to produce acetone, a highly flammable liquid. Thus, when these “stone” lined containers were exposed to flame, much to everyone’s surprise, the “stone” caught fire.
  3. A tannery discharged waste water containing animal matter into an outdoor basin partly roofed with wood. A workman working nearby lit a blowtorch with a match and then threw the match into the “pool of water.” Anyone want to guess the results?

Each of these examples show how the linguistic meaning of the situation can be seen to have very important, and perhaps even dire, consequences for participants involved. (Whorf is not clear as to whether anyone was hurt in these fires…)

Cross-linguistic examples of Linguistic Relativity

Consider the oft-quoted example of Eskimos and their words for “snow” that Whorf mentions in his paper titled “Science and Linguistics.”

It is interesting that the snow example is actually given as an elaboration of another point that nobody ever seems to talk about, the fact that the Hopi have one word for “insect”, “aviator”, and “airplane”. The point here is that if a Hopi speaker were to be walking through, let’s say, an airport and if she were to be looking out the window at an airplane at which point she saw a fly buzzing around a window just as she passed an “aviator” (i.e. a “pilot”), she would say that she just saw three of the “same” thing.

This is much like the non-skiing American for whom powder, slush, and crusty snow are all the “same” thing (I qualified that as “non-skiing American” because skiers have different terms for snow – and more importantly, they engage with those different categories of snow quite differently, often to the point of even having different types of skis for different types of snow).

Whorf’s point is that, for the Eskimo, these are not the “same” thing. One substance is good for making igloos (“hard-packed snow”), another is good for walking on (“ice-covered snow”), and another is generally a pain in the rear end (“powder”). But, for the Eskimo each of these different types of snow are, as Whorf says, “different things to contend with.” Having a different name for each of them tells an Eskimo what exactly it is that they are contending with.

So the next time someone says that the Eskimo have over 100 words for snow, after you have helped them understand how this is false-to-facts (11 seems a more plausible number), you can then tell them that the Hopi have only one word for “insect”, “aviator”, and “airplane”. That should blow their mind.

Module 4 Pages

Linguistic Relativity | What We Do With Language | How Language Shapes Thought | Implications of Linguistic Relativity
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources