Post 2: Learning more about the debate on Linguistic Relativity

As I continued my research, I realized that the Sapir Whorf hypothesis has undergone much development since it was first introduced and the reaction to it has changed dramatically. When it was first introduced, it was relatively well received until Whorf’s claims about native American languages were proven wrong as in the “Eskimo 100 words for snow” situation, which was greatly exaggerated from four up to one hundred. Many of Whorf’s claims about language and thought were later disproved and the theory lost favor in the scientific community, caused also by the introduction of the Chomskean Universal Grammar. With this theory, it was thought that language could have no influence on thought if the general properties of language were all universal. Since then, there has been a resurgence of interest for linguistic relativity, in part spear headed by Lera Boroditsky’s articles in favor of linguistic relativity which are actually what caught my interest when one of them was published in Scientific American back in 2011. She presents an eye catching argument for linguistic relativity using examples from her own research on topics such as the effect of language on assigning blame and the affect of language on conceptions of time. However in the time since his work has been published, there has been much backlash against some of her work. After analyzing one of her papers, the cross-linguistic differences in eyewitness memory she found, though statistically significant, were just barely and could not be said to have any significant real world application outside of the carefully controlled lab setting. In addition, her results on different conceptions of time due to language could not be replicated in six separate experiments.

Lera Boroditsky is obviously not the only researcher conducting work on linguistic relativity however, so while her results may not be the most reliable, there are still multitudes of other studies out there in favor of linguistic relativity that have not been disproved. I have not found as many studies done that disprove linguistic relativity on their own, without the prompt of a study in favor of the hypothesis that they want to discredit. I think that this might be due to both confirmation and publication biases in the literature in regards to findings for linguistic relativity because researchers that are proponents of the hypothesis are the ones that are going to study it and are not going to want to publish findings going against it. Even if they are published, findings that denounce linguistic relativity are seen as boring and do not get attention because it seems as if they’re not adding anything new to the field.

As of now, the majority of the research I have seen concludes in favor of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, however after reading McWhorter’s work, I know not to judge these conclusions as complete evidence of linguistic relativity because of the various interpretations of results due to barely significant findings and the interaction between language and culture that is always intertwined and sometimes hard to separate.

Comments

  1. Hey Erica! This sounds like really interesting and complex research! It seems like it would be pretty hard to figure out what differences across languages could be significant enough to have an impact on the way different people think, but it sounds like some studies have made some pretty solid attempts to figure this out. It definitely seems to me like many Americans consider English a superior language; more and more people are learning it worldwide too. I guess it will be interesting to see if more people start to “think like Americans.” But that also could happen just due to other effects of media and globalization. I wonder which countries most of the studies about linguistic relativity are coming from, and whether or not these people are trying to promote their own language and/or way of thinking. I also know there is also research about “dying languages.” I wonder if these people want to preserve the languages just because they are considered special or because they don’t believe in linguistic relativity and want to preserve a way of thinking that is unique.