Reconsidering “Sapir-Wholf” hypothesis-From Cognitive Perspective-(Part2)


Hello. This is Hisanori Iijima. Today, I would like to consider one of the most controversial question in the studies of language–Sapir-Wholf hypothesis”. According to this hypothesis, human’s thoughts are reflected on human’s production of the language. However, this hypothesis is highly debated and discussed. Then, let me discuss the “Sapir-Wholf hypothesis”.

This is the second series of the article “Reconsidering “Sapir-Wholf” hypothesis-From Cognitive Perspective-“

A Simplified Explanation–Key Points–

Many people disagree about a theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Critics mainly disagree about how we perceive and understand colors. In English, for instance, we do not have specific names for every shade of red or yellow. These shades, which don’t have specific names in English, stand out a lot.

People who disagree with this theory say that it’s not about how we understand colors. In one experiment, they gave each color a random name. Participants, specifically the Dani people, were better at remembering the name of the main color than the name of other colors. This experiment’s results were seen as supporting a different theory called Rosch’s typicality theory, which is seen as a strong argument against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

However, later studies showed that the results of the Rosch’s study alone don’t fully prove or disprove the Sapir-Whorf theory. Other research has also suggested that we shouldn’t dismiss the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis based only on Rosch’s study. Researchers Kay and Kempton are examples of such individuals.

Kay and Kempton (1984)

Kay and Kempton conducted an experiment with Tarahumara language speakers and English language speakers. The Tarahumara language, spoken by a Mexican tribe, doesn’t distinguish between blue and green colors. Instead, they use one word to describe both. They used color chips to divide the color spectrum between blue and green. In English, both chips A and B are called green, but chip B has a slightly bluish color compared to chip A. Chips C and D are both called blue. They created three combinations of chips from these. Participants were asked to compare the color of the center chip to the colors of the chips at both ends. Tarahumara speakers, who don’t distinguish between green and blue, used the actual color difference and thought that B was closer to C. English speakers, on the other hand, overestimated the difference between B and C along the “green” and “blue” boundaries, and underestimated the difference between A and B. These results are important in understanding and testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Another main point of debate about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is how language affects logical reasoning. This question was first asked by Alfred Bloom in 1981. English clearly separates assumptions based on facts and those based on simple beliefs. For example, consider the sentences “If John’s plane comes on time, he will be punctual” and “If John’s plane arrives on time, he will be on schedule.” The difference is in the state of snow and the terms used to describe it. In the Inuit language, spoken by the Scimaux people, each word is separate and referred to as “basic level” words.

Inuit Language

In the Inuit language, each word is considered a separate entity or “basic level” term. Some researchers, however, argue that English speakers can easily identify different types of snow, suggesting that language categories don’t solely determine how we perceive the world.

One of the most famous tests supporting the Sapir-Whorf theory was done by Heider (1972) and later expanded by Rosch (1974), focusing on the Dani people. The Dani people only have two words for color: black and white. In one experiment, the Dani people were shown color chips and asked to remember the color they saw. The researchers found that the Dani people were able to remember the colors.

Another point of consideration is the ability of language speakers to understand ideas that are not distinguishable in their language. For example, if John’s plane arrived on time, he would be able to understand the color chip.

However, some researchers have disagreed with Bloom’s findings. They argue that the sentences used in the study didn’t accurately translate from English to Chinese, and that the study’s findings are a result of unnatural sentences.

When these researchers repeated Bloom’s experiment using better Chinese sentences, they found that Chinese speakers were just as good as English speakers at making assumptions based on facts. They concluded that Bloom’s results were due to poorly constructed sentences and processes, and didn’t support the Sapir-Whorf theory.

This summary explains the ongoing debate about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s important to note that the debate isn’t as simple as proving one side right or wrong. Instead, it’s about understanding how both universal and language-specific knowledge influence how we think. Different languages and cultures might influence how we think in unique ways. This doesn’t mean that one language is “better” or “worse” than another. It’s more about how we can adapt and develop within different languages and cultures.

The next step is to look at different areas of thought, such as how we understand space, categorize objects, and process language. We also need to consider whether our thinking depends on specific language structures or whether it’s universally consistent regardless of the language. It’s important to consider these questions from a developmental perspective, and whether language learning influences how we develop cognitively. The following parts of this essay will delve into these specific areas.