Human Language: Edward Sapir, Benjamin Whorf, and Noam Chomsky
Edward Sapir was a proponent of linguistic relativity. Linguistic relativity can be best summarized as follows: “The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached” (Bonvillain, 2008). This is not unlike the anthropological outlook of Franz Boas. Boas was a cultural relativist. Boas can also be attributed to historical particularism, a theoretical stance that states, again, that cultures are best studied on their own terms and within their own historical or cultural context. It is interesting to note, however, that languages do have a tendency to change far less quickly than other cultural forms. Hence, it seems unlikely to myself that the study of a language in a particular, cultural/historical context will yield accurate results to the ethnographer. When I think of my own language, for example, it seems there have been numerous, cultural changes, outside of language, that are more pertinent to the understanding of a current, cultural identity. As Sapir states, “the forms of language will in course of time cease to symbolize those of culture” (Bonvillain, 2008).
The Sapir Whorf hypothesis argues that language determines reality. Thus far, it seems the readings I have encountered regarding this hypothesis appear to view both reality and language as being interchangeable. Sapir continues further by stating that “the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation” (Bonvillain, 2008). Benjamin Whorf, who strikes me of having been of the religious sort, believed that language is indicative of “a culture’s metaphysics or view of the universe” (Bonvillain, 2008). He uses the Hopi language as an example. I am not sure if I agree with Whorf. Although the tense may differ in Standard Average European (SAE), this does not necessarily mean a speaker of SAE views events as belonging to a specific past, present, or future. I think by the very fact that SAE has words to describe such states of being (take the word “transcendental,” for example) is a clear indication that not all speakers of SAE are all that different than a speaker of Hopi. Also, turning to another example, when we consider the amount of words the Inuit have for snow (I assume they are nouns), I could use a ton of adjectives to describe snow. Snow can be crunchy, hard, wet, bright, fun, etc. The point being, the grammar and mechanics of language may differ, but it is very easy to manipulate the rules and mechanics of any given language to fit a person’s needs.
Finally, Noam Chomsky is a proponent of generative grammar. Generative grammar “produces rules accounting for all possible sentences in a particular language. [It] should also block or constrain generation of impermissible constructions” (Bonvillain, 2008). Whether an “impermissible construction” is something that is learned or innate, is anyone’s guess, but it seems Chomsky does strongly feel that our ability to understand grammar (and somehow synthesize it) is an innate ability. I agree with Chomsky that human beings have a genetic predisposition for language use. Still, unless studies in the areas of the brain associated with language have proven otherwise, it seems unlikely to me that Chomsky is completely correct in his hypothesis. Our species is extremely inventive. It seems the only limitation we have in terms of our language use is dependent on the amount of sounds a human is capable of making. It will be interesting to see how Chomsky is viewed in future studies. His thoughts continue to be in direct opposition to the postmodern, and highly individualistic, cultural climate we happen to live in today.
Bonvillain, N. (2008). Language, Culture, and Communication. New Jersey: Pearson.