As I conclude my research, I have come to realize that the topic of linguistic relativity is immensely huge. From all of the different languages that can be studied to all of the different aspects of cognition that can be tested, there is so much out there that my initial proposition evaluating all of the current research on linguistic relativity was deemed impossible pretty early on. But that didn’t stop me from trying to come to my own consensus based on various books that argued both for and against linguistic relativity and many journal articles.
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.
As I started my research, I realized that the first book I intended to read, The Language Hoax by John McWhorter was actually somewhat of a response to a previously published book called Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher. Through the Language glass was published in 2010 and detailed the history of the study of how language influences how and what we perceive, starting with Homer’s descriptions of color in ancient Greece, continuing through Whorf’s theory of linguistic relativity and closing with the recent studies showing how language was influencing thought. Although Deutscher is arguing for the theory that language does have some impact on our world view, one important aspect of his argument is that the differences are not in what languages are able to express, but what they encourage their speakers to express or perceive. Deustcher wrote an insightful analysis on the studies done on the Guugu Yimithirr, a language where directions are always expressed by the cardinal directions, and those done comparing Russian with their two different words for blue and showing how those aspects of language affected cognition. I was fairly convinced at that point that language had something to do with how we were thinking. And then I read The Language Hoax.
Over the course of the study of linguistics, there has been an ongoing debate about the existence of linguistic relativity, or extent to which language impacts how and what we think. In the popular media, there have been articles written about studies conducted on different cultures’ perceptions of colors and other stimuli due to their language. However recently, there has been more research done to show that since we all have the same senses, their should be no difference in what we perceive, even if we describe them differently. My goal for this project is to read the most current research on this topic and determine what the scientific consensus in the linguistic community is on how much language impacts our thoughts. I will conduct this research through reading The Language Hoax, a book by John McWhorter which argues against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and from there, read more scientific articles published in linguistic journals found using the Swem databases. My hypothesis is that language does not have as a big influence on how we think, as has been the public opinion since the introduction of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.