Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

“The core of racism is the notion that the individual is meaningless and that membership in the collective — the race — is the source of his identity and value. … The notion of  ‘diversity’ entails exactly the same premises as racism — that one’s ideas are determined by one’s race and that the source of an individual’s identity is his ethnic heritage.”
— Peter Schwartz

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis simple put states that the language a person uses changes their perspective and thus they see the world differently. Meaning that a speaker of Spanish and a speaker of English, according to this hypothesis, see the world differently. Basically, the hypothesis means that language shapes reality. Examples in “support” of this theory range from the amount of words in a particular language meaning that the concept is highly important to them to the fact that one language has a word for concept whereas another doesn’t shows that the first values that concept and the second not only does but very likely could never think of it in the same way. There are problems with this hypothesis, problems that in some people’s view (including this writer) invalidate most or all of the hypothesis.

Firstly, it seems to assume a universal perception and set of values among speakers of the same language, but no one has the exact same values, preferences, and perception as any other, that is the key to being human. For example, two English speaking bothers may view the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis differently thus changing their respective perceptions of linguistic reality, yet they were raised in the same language. Second, if language determines reality than do ideas transience language? For example despite speak two completely unrelated languages a Englishman and a Hungarian can both perceive of freedom (szabadság, in Hungarian). On that note it may be mentioned that Orwell’s Newspeak followed a conception of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Thirdly, why must one assume that reality/perception is determined by language and not the other way round. That is why should one assume that perception of a certain fruit being important to a culture is determined by the fact that they have twelve words for it and not that they have twelve words for it because it is important or because they felt the need for twelve words to describe it.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis might easily be used to say that Spanish speakers really have no independent concept of “morning” or “tomorrow” because they are both described by the word “mañana,” yet it is clear that they do because reality shows that the two things exist. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is one of those sticking points of linguistics, that make it a murky and debated topic. Yet, to people that have not looked beyond the surface linguistics seems to be a agreed upon topic with little debate. Here is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to shatter that pleasant view along with the Chomsky-Skinner-Vygotsky conflict and many others.

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