Essay on The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Rears Its Ugly Head!

Essay on The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Rears Its Ugly Head!

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Once again, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis enters a philosophical discussion and several frantic questions are raised: Are our thoughts determined by language, or are they merely influenced by language? Does our language limit our world so much so that our ethics are determined by our ways of speaking? Is Orwell’s Newspeak a real danger? Is political correctness feasible? Whorf wants to say, yes, “all higher levels of thinking are dependent on language“ (Cordova, 78). But many linguists, while upholding the idea that our thinking is influenced by language, continue to argue over how much this is the case. There is still much disagreement over what is actually being argued and what the ramifications are. Because we are not linguists, this paper will not reach any conclusions or make any points, but will meander through anecdotal evidence in an attempt to show that the question is one without an easy answer.
First, an anecdote. I took a linguistics class a while back and the professor told a story he had heard from a fellow linguist studying some Uto-Aztecan language. This linguist said one of the Indians she was working with told her in private that ‘white people lie all the time.’ When she asked this man what he meant, he said that a white man he was driving with had said, ‘Oh I see that John is home,’ after seeing John’s pickup truck parked outside his house. The Native told the linguist that the white man hadn’t seen John in person, so why was he saying he knew John was home? He must have been lying.
Is the Indian man stupid? No, he simply took ‘see’ literally and thought the white man was lying because John was not present. This simple misunderstanding shows that the Indian man did not understand the metaphor we constantly use ...


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...is political correctness: we use politically correct language to show that we have changed paradigms, not as a catalyst of change. In other words, my use of language tells me little about how to be ethical. It does not weigh my options; it reflects my prejudices. I can use my language to argue my ethical attitude, not change it. It therefore remains more important to look at the cultural framework (the matrix) of peoples’ actions instead of the language they speak.


Works Cited

Cordova, V.F. How It Is: The Native American Philosophy of V. F. Cordova. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Goddard, Cliff. “Whorf Meets Wierzbicka: Variation and Universals in Language and Thinking.” Language Sciences 25 (2003): 393-432.

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