Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Caution: This post contains a good deal more theorizing and unorthodox ideas not accepted by Modern linguistics. As always, corrections on facts are appreciated, but you might not want to cite this as anything other than a young, naive linguistics student ranting.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a blanket term for the idea that the grammar and lexicon of a person’s language subtly affects their thoughts and perspectives on the world. It’s a very hotly contested issue in modern Linguistics, and although the most extreme variations (the idea that language determines your thought) have been disproved through some pretty ingenious color studies, the more subtle varieties are still supported in some senses.

If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true, a speaker of the Hopi language (which has a very different system of tenses than English) will perceive time in a fundamentally different way than an English speaker. Similarly, a Spanish speaker will have a slightly different view of the world than an English speaker, simply due to the underlying differences between the two languages. If this is, in fact, the case, then there are huge ramifications in Linguistics, Cognitive Science, and the world in general.

However, up until today, nobody has constructed a method to conclusively prove or disprove the idea of the language you speak affecting your thoughts (linguistic relativity).

The LinguisticMystic Method for proving/disproving the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, in three easy steps:

  1. Find monolingual native speakers of Hopi and Mandarin Chinese

  2. Find a skilled telepath, ideally one who can speak the same language as the researcher

  3. If the telepath can read (and understand) the minds of the Hopi and Mandarin people, then complete determinism has been disproved. If he/she can read them and understand parts of it, yet notices differences, there might be some relativity going on. If the only difference between the two is the side of the room they’re sitting in, then I’d venture to say that Linguistic relativity is extremely weak or non-existent.

Actually, there’s some false advertising there. Only step one is easy, the others might just be impossible. With the right cash incentive (and a set of plane tickets), you could likely find a native speaker of pretty much any living language without too much trouble, but finding yourself a skilled telepath is far easier said than done. It’s not like you could just post a few flyers on campus (“Skilled telepaths wanted for research study! ”) or check the Yellow Pages, and many people argue that no such people exist. In fact, the relative (or complete) lack of telepaths is the fatal flaw in this experiment’s design, and one of the many reasons that I myself haven’t submitted this to any reputable journals. However, it does underscore something that I’ve come to terms with throughout my study of the idea of linguistic relativity: without an impossible set of circumstances as in my experiment, it might not be possible to prove or disprove the idea, ever.

Why Sapir-Whorf may never be conclusively proved or disproved

Studying language’s effects on thought is a very troublesome area, because there are so many factors to control.

To begin, everybody views the world differently, and uses their language accordingly. For instance, my family is in the photographic printing business, so I’d likely be an extremely biased sample in a color chip study, due to my overdeveloped scrutiny of color. Similarly, there’s likely to be individual cognitive (and linguistic) quirks with every person, so really, there’s no neutral sample of a given language. You might be able to balance it out by performing the study with 150 speakers of a given language, but sadly, there’s nothing to average, much of it will be subjective.

Culture is also a complicating factor. Cultural beliefs and upbringing can have a profound effect on people’s views of the world, and in general, people sharing a given native language (or dialect) are likely to share a cultural background as well. So, you’re placed in the awkward spot of trying to decide whether a given effect is linguistic or cultural (or both). This gets into a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” type of debate that can derail an experiment pretty quickly.

Finally, there’s the issue of the experiment itself. You’re trying to study how people use language, without biasing them. However, you’re going to have to use language to explain the study and conduct the experiments. So, you’ll have to face the added complication of using a translator to pass on instructions, which may bias your participant right from the get-go. Also, keep in mind that, if there is some degree of linguistic relativity, it will likely be universal, and thus, the researcher will be affected by it too. Depending on the nature of these effects, a researcher studying this effect in another person might be like an inmate studying the behavior of fellow inmates. If we’re all looking at the same shadows, who can claim to be objective on their source?

Conclusion

Now, I don’t mean to say that it’s pointless to do research in this area. There are lots of really cool studies going on even now, and every little bit we learn about these effects (or their absence) is a Good Thing™. Although I doubt anybody will ever prove (or disprove) the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis beyond a shadow of a doubt, I’m less and less sure that we need to.

Humans have successfully lived with gravity throughout the history of our species, and only now are we starting to determine what it actually is. Similarly, if it exists, linguistic relativity has always been a force on us, and we’ve made do so far. There’s not really a way to escape it (that I can think of), so finding out more about it is a purely academic exercise. Knowledge is power though, and every little bit of knowledge about how humans function is a good thing.

However, if you do happen to see a Hopi speaker, a Mandarin speaker, and a telepath walk into a bar, keep them there and shoot me an email. I’ll put your name in my dissertation somewhere.


Have a question, comment, or concern about this post? Contact me!