Do I know you mean what you mean? If a person thinks in one language, they think one way; in another language another way. At least that is what Benjamin Lee Whorf said, who explained why a person’s thought is a prisoner of their tongue. …
When Whorf died in 1941, at only forty-four, he had not completed his book in which he hoped to write about his discoveries, but he did leave behind some articulate essays which have had a significant impact in the field of structural linguistics. There is no doubt that Whorf forced a re-evaluation of the traditional thinking about language, cognition and cultural behaviour.
(see link at end)…The linguistic relativity hypothesis grained its widest audience through the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose collected writings became something of a relativistic manifesto….
Whorf presents a moving target, with most of his claims coming in both extreme and in more cautious forms. Debate continues about his considered views, but there is little doubt that his bolder claims, unimpeded by caveats or qualifications, were better suited to captivate his readers than more timid claims would have been.
When languages are similar, Whorf tells us, there is little likelihood of dramatic cognitive differences. But languages that differ markedly from English and other Western European languages (which Whorf calls, collectively, “Standard Average European” or SAE) often do lead their speakers to have very different world views. Thus We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. …The relativity of all conceptual systems, ours included, and their dependence upon language stand revealed (1956, p. 214f, italics added).
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds–and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds (p. 213).
…no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free (p. 214).
In fairness it must be stressed that these passages come from a single essay, “Science and Linguistics,” of 1940, and in other places Whorf’s tone is often more measured. But not always; elsewhere he also says thing like
…users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalentbservers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world (1956, p. 221)….
The passages from Sapir and Whorf bristle with metaphors of coercion: our thought is “at the mercy” of our language, it is “constrained” by it; no one is free to describe the world in a neutral way; we are “compelled” to read certain features into the world (p. 262). The view that language completely determines how we think is often called linguistic determinism. Read More:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/supplement2.html
Whorf hit where it hurt the most: as Freud did, he impugned our ability to be objective. He threw into doubt the rationality of our everyday decisions, buy suggesting that all our lives we have been tricked by the English language- and it is small consolation to know that his subject group, the Hopi Indians were also tricked, though in a different way. One of the more simple conclusions to be drawn, is that if we can change people’s words, we can change their ideas. Sort of Orwellian in a sense that a political and ideological narrative contains its own lexicon which in turn can alter a world view. Think about the political rhetoric of “socialized medicine” or the public relations genius of Edward Bernays to describe women women smoking in the early 1920’s as liberating “torches of freedom”; or how crime became “crime in the streets,” now manifesting itself on the information highway as “cybercrime.”
But Whorf warned us that the essential thing is the structure of a language- its grammar and syntax and modes of thought- and not its vocabulary, which is the least stable part of any vocabulary. The Whorf hypothesis brought into the open the problems inherent in language and the subsequent struggle against inherited linguistic limitations. Our global village is revealing that everyday language is often being transformed into special subsystems in dealing with science, technology and mathematics. The true value of Whorf’s years of work with an obscure American Indian language is that he alerted us to a problem that becomes more pressing as more people in the world communicate with each other.
…. Firstly, there is the French grammarian, dramatist, philologist and mystic Antoine Fabre d’Olivet (1768-1825), whose quasi-Cabbalistic writings on the hebrew language Whorf discovered in 1924 and which strongly fuelled his mystical interest in language (Koerner 2002: 41). Second to be mentioned is the linguist Iren James Byrne (1820-1897) (Gipper 1969: 298).
Fabre d’Olivet was a man with strong mystical inclinations. His contrastive research on the Hebrew three-part-syllable made him to believe in the secret meaning of sounds, more in particular letters, with which the former are symbolised. He was convinced of a connection between Sound and Sense, a conviction which strongly attracted Whorf, although linguists of the day were very sceptical about it. Whorf later realised that the research results of d’Olivet were quite dubious as a result of this combination with mystical Ideas, but he nevertheless never completely abandoned this mystical inclination (Gipper 1969: 298).
see: THE WEAK WHORFIAN HYPOTHESIS WITH REGARD TO GENDER CATEGORISATION LAURA VANDEWYNCKEL