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Sapir-Whorf 70 years on

August 27th, 2010 08:35 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Many a people have looked at Programming Lanugages through the Sapir-Whorf lens so it’s not uncommon to find people making PL claims using that hypothesis. Also not surprisingly, the topic keeps re-appearing here on LtU.

This week’s NY Times magazine has an article titled Does Your Language Shape How You Think? by Guy Deutscher which starts as a retrospective on Whorf but then goes into what new research has shown.

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

Source: Sapir-Whorf 70 years on

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