What is linguistic relativity?
It has to do with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, formulated in 1929 by Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir.
Sapir and Whorf studied the Hopi language and found...
Unique verb tenses and noun categorization-->
Unique understanding of time and objects’ relationships to each other-->
Unique brain processing and language limitations
The hard version of this theory has been generally discredited due to it’s circularity and lack of evidence, the question of Linguistic Relativity still remains. Researchers today are still trying to determine the relationship between language, culture, and brain processing. We will be discussing some modern studies today to see what progress has been made in the field. We will focus on "structural relativity", which has to do with language structure and not brain activity.
Example 1: Yucatec, John A. Lucy
- Spoken in southeastern Mexico by an indigenous group
- About 350,000 speakers (1992)
- Categorizes nouns based on material composition, which implies gender and number
‘un-túul k’éek’ –en’ ‘one/a live pig’
‘um-p’éel k’éek’-en’ ‘one/a whole pig (dead or alive)’
‘um-píit k’éek’-en’ ‘a-little-bit-of/some pork’
‘um-šéet’ k’éek’-en’ ‘one/a piece/shred of pork’
- The words ‘um’ all denote ‘one/a’ and ‘k’éek’-en’ always denotes ‘pork’, but the word in between distinguishes the size, composition, and quantity of the pork.
- By using the same noun for all four objects, Yucatec requires short modifiers that contain a plethora of linguistic information: the size, animateness, and quantity of an object. Otherwise there would be no difference between the above examples. The modifiers serve as multiple adjectives/prepositions at once.
- Different classifiers are used for animate versus inanimate objects, creating a binary. The word ‘k’éek’en’ itself is neutral; with the classifier, the two combined words make ‘k’éek’en’ animate and singular.
- Animateness is better defined as ‘[+mobile] [+self-segmenting]’ since things like trucks and buttons can take the ‘animate’ classifier ‘túul’. They aren’t alive as much as they are autonomous, or at least appear to be so to the Yucatec.
- Their concept of numbers is included in their classifiers, therefore they classify items on a scale of size and number, without specific numbers.
Example 2: Algonkian, Mo káa
- Spoken in the Northeast and Midwest of the US
- Number of speakers of Algonkian is difficult to determine because of the variety of dialects and the diaspora of tribes
- Categorizes nouns based on animateness or inanimateness
Why I chose these studies
Many studies about linguistic relativity require participants to complete linguistic tasks and then measure their perception based on their use of language. By directly correlating language and worldview in linguistic tasks, we are making assumptions about how language affects the brain. These two studies instead dissected the languages' structures before attempting to understand their effects on the cultures. They measured non-linguistic tasks more than linguistic ones. Research was conducted before assumptions were made about brain activity or culture, unlike many studies that draw injudicious direct correlations.
Everett, Caleb. (2013). Linguistic Relativity: Evidence Across Languages and Cognitive Domains. Germany: Walter de Gruyter GmbH
Káa, Mo. (1976). Universalism versus Relativism in Language and Thought. The Netherlands: Mouton and Co.
Lucy, John A. (1992). Grammatical Categories and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.