“the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theory that the language you speak determines how you think”
So says the fictive linguist Louise Banks (ably played by Amy Adams) in the sci-fi flick ‘Arrival’ (2016). The movie’s plot relies rather heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the principle of linguistic relativity, so heavily in fact that the entire plot would be undone without it.
But what is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, really? Before digging into why ‘Arrival’ may have gotten it a bit… well, off, a word of caution: If you haven’t seen the movie (and intend to do so), go ahead and do that before reading the rest of this post because there will be SPOILERS!!!
Now that you have been duly warned, let’s get going.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is, in a way, what Louise Banks describes: it is in part a hypothesis claiming that language determines the way you think. This idea is called linguistic determinism and is actually only one half of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Commonly known as the “strong” version of Sapir-Whorf, linguistic determinism holds that language limits and determines cognitive categories, thereby limiting our worldview to that which can be described in the words of whatever language we speak. Our worldview, and our way of thinking, is thus determined by our language.
That sounds pretty technical, so let’s use the example provided by ‘Arrival’:
The movie’s plot revolves around aliens coming to earth, speaking a language that is completely unknown to mankind. To try to figure out what they want, the movie linguist is called in. She manages to figure out their language pretty quickly (of course), realising that they think of time in a non-linear way.
This is quite a concept for a human to grasp since our idea of time is very linear. In western societies, we commonly think of time as a timeline going from left to right, as below.
Let’s say that we are currently at point C of our timeline. We can probably all agree that, as humans, we cannot go back in time to point A, right? However, in ‘Arrival’, we are given the impression that the reason we can’t do that is because our language doesn’t let us think about time in a non-linear way. That is, because our language doesn’t allow us, we can’t go back in time. Sounds a bit wonky, doesn’t it?
Well, you might be somewhat unsurprised to hear that this “strong” version has been discredited in linguistics for quite some time now and, for most modern-day linguists, it is a bit silly. Yet, we can’t claim that language doesn’t influence our way of thinking, can we?
Consider the many bi/multilinguals who has stated that they feel kinda like a different person when speaking their second language. If you’ve never met one, we bilinguals at the HLC agree that we could vouch for that fact.
Why would they feel that way, if language doesn’t affect our way of thinking? Well, of course, language does affect our way of thinking, it just doesn’t determine it. This is the ‘weak’ version of Sapir-Whorf, also known as linguistic relativism.
The weak version may be somewhat more palatable to you (and us): it holds that language influence our way of thinking but does not determine it. Think about it: if someone were to point out a rainbow to you and you had no word for the color red, you would still be able to perceive that that color was different from the others.
If someone were to discover a brand-new color (somewhat mind-boggling, I know, but just consider that), you would be able to explain that this is a color for which you have no word but you would still be able to see it just fine.
That might be the most clear distinction between linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism: the former would claim that you wouldn’t be able to perceive the color while the latter would say that you’ll see it just fine, you just don’t have a word for it.
So, while ‘Arrival’ was (at least in my opinion) a pleasant waste of time, when it comes to the linguistics of it, I’d just like to say:
(Oh, and on a side note, the name of the hypothesis (i.e. Sapir-Whorf), is actually quite misleading since Sapir and Whorf never did a collaborate effort to formalise the hypothesis)
Tune in for more linguistic stuff next week when the marvellous Rebekah will dive into the phonology of consonants (trust me, you have a treat coming)!