Sunday, August 29, 2010

Examples of linguistic relativity documented

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says:
The linguistic relativity principle, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,[1] is the idea that differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it. A strong version of the hypothesis holds that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. A weaker version states that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour.

The idea was first clearly expressed by 19th century thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt who saw language as the expression of the spirit of a nation.
This became very politically incorrect, because of the possible implication that some nationalities could be superior to others in some respects. Eg, Ronald Reagan claimed that the Russian language had no word for "freedom." The whole idea that Russians might be less free because of some linguistic limitation was very offensive to some people.

Now the NY Times reports:
Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.
The article goes on to describe examples, including color, gender, and direction.

Here is one striking difference:
These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn.
The terminology is misleading. The difference is really between relative and absolute coordinates. The relative coordinates depend on the context, which may or may not be your own body. Most languages have grammars that allow phrases to have a meaning that is relative to the context. Apparently language limitations make it hard for some people to understand directions that are relative to a context.

Another article in the same paper gives other psychological evidence that people from "Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic" nations think differently. They have different perceptions and values.

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