Pinker and Whorfian hypothesis

Topics: Linguistic relativity, Linguistics, The Language Instinct Pages: 6 (1563 words) Published: April 21, 2015
Yuanruo Xu
Language Development
March 15th, 2015

Culture and Language

Whether language acquisition is a human instinct or not has been discussed by linguists for a long time. As human beings are able to respond and learn all kinds of language patterns that expose to them, and children can come up with their own language, it is obvious to say that language is a human instinct. However, children are not able to learn and master a language without being exposed to a normal language-speaking environment, which can be defined as a normal social life. Therefore, I support Whorfian Hypothesis and think that language is influenced under the social condition.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that an individual’s comprehension of the world is determined by his or her background linguistics system. In other words, languages used within his or her culture, influence his or her thoughts, ideas, and view of the world. The strong version of the hypothesis claims that languages bind all human thoughts and actions. The weaker version says that language shapes our thinking and behavior. Explanation of this hypothesis will be more understandable by examples, especially when it involves cultural differences. If a culture values certain ideas more than another culture, this culture tends to have a greater variety of words to express that idea. For example, in English, there are around twenty words related to family relationships: father, mother, cousin, aunt, uncle, etc. However, in Chinese, there are about seventy words, which is a result of Confucianism, which emphasizes the value of family, being widely spread in China. Another obvious example to explain the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is “time”. Whorf explains his hypothesis with the concept of “time”, which is one of the most common nouns in the English language. Most Western people view time in three major tenses: past, present, and future. The English language has a cultural form of time units: decade, year, month, day, etc. There are various other cultural forms such as histories or calendars. Nevertheless, the Hopis have a different concept of time: objective and subjective. The objective is the facts that exist, and the subjective is something that is going to happen in the future. In other words, rather than the tenses of past, present and future, there are things that have individual life cycles like growing, declining, and any other form that mother nature does. Therefore, Hopis view the present (objective) as a future (subjective) that can come to pass. By comparing English and Hopi, we can acknowledge that the norm of ‘time’ is different in different cultures. Consequently, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems reasonable as each group of people thinks and acts differently by the form of cultural language. Various languages carve up and sketch the world in different ways. This not only underlies that the language one speaks will affect the way in which he thinks about the world but that it will also influence one’s way of reasoning in different circumstances.

The Language Instinct
Steven Pinker's goal in his book The Language Instinct was to argue for the nature of language acquisition. His opponent was Whorf, who proposed the idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Pinker disagrees with Whorf’s exploration about the Hopi concept of time in the forms of Hopi language. Whorf used the Hopi language as an example to prove how different languages produce different types of thinking in peoples. When Hopi is translated literally to English, it is very awkward and difficult to understand. Whorf sees this strange translation as a clear representation that the Hopi have different understandings of words compared to English speakers. 
Pinker points out that this translation is just a product of Whorf's beliefs about Hopi thinking, since Whorf has already determined that the Hopi’s concept of time must be different from that of an English...
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