Activity Thirty

Now read Extract B.

Extract B

During the 1930s and 1940s Benjamin Whorf wrote various papers about the connection between the structure of individual languages and their speakers' perception of reality. He suggested that the way in which humans view the world is constrained by the language available to them. In this way measurable differences in world view could be discerned between speakers of different languages. This view of the connection between language structure and social reality is called 'linguistic determinism' and has been largely discredited by linguists during the last forty years. Taking, for example, the perception of 'time' in different cultures; it might seem something different to people who speak different languages and come from different cultures. For example, if people from different cultures have different ways of talking about the concepts of present, past and future, it might mean that speakers from different cultures don't necessarily all understand 'time' in the same way. Looked at in this way, it is possible to argue that this is more than simply making a connection between language and reality. That is language does not merely reflect the world as it is but actually constructs it in particular ways depending on the cultural context. So, for example, Eskimos have lots of words for snow because they live in a world where making these distinctions is crucial to their day to day life. However you look at it we can see that language shapes ideas and guides mental activity but some linguists have provided evidence that this is just a myth. Also, in America, in the 1950s and 1960s, Whorf's work was used in the debate which regarded black people as inferior to white, and because of this and the contradictory evidence regarding 'linguistic determinism' his work became regarded by most linguists as having little validity. Taken to its logical conclusion such a hypothesis would not allow the possibility of successful translation between languages, a suggestion that is clearly absurd.

Maybe what is more important are the similarities between languages rather than the differences. This is what Chomsky was interested in when he described things that were universally found in all languages. But modern linguists are more interested in 'linguistic relativity' (http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Principle_of_linguistic_relativity) and issues about how far language can be said to shape world view and what are the connections between language and the culture in which the language is spoken. This is a much weaker version of the determinist position. Within a relativist position the individual is seen as having a perception of the world which is in some way limited by the language available to her. On the other hand, implicit in this position is that she can use this language to construct other interpretations of the world. There is no suggestion that the language system is so fixed that only one world view is possible. The principle of 'linguistic relativity' seems to be most useful for linguists in consideration of the ways in which culture is mediated through language. Rather than looking at the contrast between languages we should be more interested in looking at the way people use language within one culture, or one nation where everyone is speaking the same language.

If you try to ask yourself the same questions as you did for Extract A (see Activity Twenty-nine), you will probably find them a lot more difficult to answer. The lack of citations in Extract B means that it is difficult to establish where the student is drawing from a source such as a published work. It appears that there is just one voice, that of the student, but in reality the writer has drawn her understanding of the debates from other authors. However, the only specific citation is with respect to her use of the term 'linguistic relativity', where she has cited a web page from wikipedia. Although this can be a quick and easy way of finding out where else to look for other sources about a topic, it is not usually regarded as a reliable source - in itself - for discussion of specific academic concepts and terms. This is because anybody can edit entries on this and other similar wiki sites, which means that it is neither reliable nor authoritative in the same way as more established academic publications and web-based resources.

In contrast to the use of sources in Extract A, with Extract B it would be very difficult for the tutor who marked this work to know what the student had actually read and how she had drawn upon this in developing her own argument in her assignment. In other words, we cannot see which writers - or whose work - have contributed to this text. Although it does begin with some general reference to the author, Whorf, it is difficult for the reader to establish what are the students' ideas and her interpretation of Whorf's work and/or what perspectives she has developed from what she has read which has been written by other authors. As she makes so little use of citations she appears to be claiming the ideas she is writing about. We cannot be sure of her intentions and whether this is a deliberate intention to plagiarize; it may just be due to poor record keeping on her part or she may be genuinely rushed and have no record of either what she read or where she has noted things down verbatim from another author. Nevertheless, from the tutor's point of view, if it is obvious that the student is paraphrasing the words of others without appropriate citation, then this will be regarded as plagiarism. This is one reason why we encourage you to be rigorous about your note taking in terms of the resources you have used.

We hope that by the time you have read and worked through the activities in this chapter you will agree that avoiding plagiarism is not just a chore but at the very heart of developing your own argument. Whilst, on the one hand, it is about putting you and your voice into the heart of your writing, it is also about being a member of an academic community with its own conventions and ways of writing. As we have indicated already these conventions vary between subjects and disciplines and your tutor is always the best person to ask for advice about citation conventions in your particular subject, course or module.

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