Does language effect the way we perceive the world? [Chomsky; Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; 1984]

Essay by tattvaUniversity, Bachelor's January 2003

download word file, 2 pages 4.3

How do you define what a language is? Is it simply a means of communication, or does it function as much more than that? Is there a connection between our language and our culture?

The general impression is that language functions as a sign of the condition of a culture. For instance,if a society's concept of the role of the woman changes, the language that the particular society uses to refer to women will also change. Chomsky had a theory that compares language to a cloak, saying that language structures are universal, while cultural differences are merely superficial. Thus, he claimed that all languages function in the same way.

Sapir and Whorf, however, said that language does not only reflect culture, but determines it. To illustrate this, they spoke about time, colour and moral attitudes. With reference to time they gave the example of a tribe of native Americans who refer to time in a completely differnet way structurally to the way time is referred to in English, in that they do not attach numbers to events.

This is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, of the mould theory, as the native American's language moulds the way they conceptualise time.

In respect to colour, as according to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, we would not see 'turquoise' unless we had a name for it (think of a child who has not acquired the word yet, to them turquoise is blue or green). Some Arabs have many different names for different yellow shades of sand, while to people who are not accustomed to seeing sand, it all looks the same. Likewise, Eskimos have 20 different words for snow.

Finally, Sapir's and Whorf's example of moral attitudes looks at how we refer to our spouse's families as "in-laws". Because of this reference, we...