Chapter 4 – Language, Thought, and Culture
- Current consensus amongst linguistic anthropologists is that a mutually influential
relationship exists among language, thought and culture.
- Some linguistic anthropologists maintain that the influence of language on culture and
thought is more likely to be predispositional rather than determinative.
o The particular language you speak might predispose you to view the world a
certain way, but it will not prevent you from challenging that view.
- Some also prefer to speak of linguistic/semiotic ‘mediation’ of the social order, positing
that sociocultural practices, norms, and relationships are all mediated by signs of one
sort or another – not just by language, but also by images, gestures, actions, messages
etc. (This view builds upon Peirce’s theories)
A Hundred Years of Linguistic Relativity
- Franz Boas’ research involved disproving racist assertions about the existence of
‘primitive’ languages, races, and cultures.
- At the turn of the 20 century, some anthropologists stated that certain societies were
incapable of complex, abstract ‘scientific’ thought because of the seeming lack of ‘logical’
grammatical categories in their language.
- Boas stated that all linguistic/cultural practices were equally complex and logical. The
language spoken by a group reflected their habitual cultural practices.
- Boas’ student Sapir, stated that all forms of linguistic expression could be reduced to a
common underlying human psychology, and in many of his writings he emphasized that
every language is so constructed ‘that no matter what nay speaker of it may desire to
communicate… the language is prepared to do his work’.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
- States that language determines thought. In this view, the particular language you speak
rigidly, structures your thought in an escapable manner.
- The particular language you speak may predispose you to think a certain way or to
engage in certain cultural practices or beliefs.
- Language, thought and culture are all viewed as influencing one another in a flexible,
mutually constitutive way.
Investigating the Effects of Language on Thought
- Where is it possible to see Whorfian effects?
o Language-in-general: research explores at the broadest level how having any
language at all might influence thinking. Such studies ask how the cognitive
processes of humans who know at least one language might differ from animals
or from humans who have never learned a language. Asem Harun
o Linguistic Structures: research at this more specific level considers how some
specific structures within a particular language, such as grammatical categories,
might influence thinking or behaviour.
o Language use: Investigations of this sort look at the ways that particular habits of
speaking can influence thought and interpretation. In other words, the question is
whether patterns of language use rather than language structure can have an
impact on cognition – either directly, or by virtue of indirectly reinforcing or
reconfiguring any effects caused by linguistic structures.
- Many non-human primates such as lemurs, Diana monkeys, baboons also seem to have
semantic calls and/or other forms of complex social cognition.
- Even though the kinds of symbol systems learned by now-famous animals such as
‘Koko the Gorilla’ are extremely basic and far from human languages, animals’ cognitive
processes do seem to be enhanced by their mastery of some simple linguistic forms.
- Another way of researching the influences of language in general on thought is studying
children who have not yet learned a language. Researchers have tu