Activity Twentynine

Read Extract A. How many writers can you identify in this text? What is telling you who these different writers are? Can you identify one or two examples of the 'voice' of the student who wrote this essay?

Extract A

During the 1930s and 1940s Benjamin Whorf wrote various papers concerning 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 (Whorf, cited in Carroll 1956). This view of the connection between language structure and social reality is referred to as 'linguistic determinism' and has been largely discredited by linguists during the last forty years. Working primarily with the contrasting features of the language of the Hopi Indians and what he called Standard Average European languages, Whorf concluded that our perception of 'time' and 'matter' is determined by the language available to us. His work with the Hopi language suggested that there was no distinction between present, past and future and therefore its speakers could not conceptualize time in the same way as a speaker of a Standard European Language. Whorf went further than simply making a connection between language and reality to suggest that the thought processes of the individual were actually linguistically determined: 'The background linguistic system of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual's mental activity' (Carroll 1956 p. 25).

Looking critically at Whorf's writings, linguists have found it difficult to verify much that he hypothesized and in some instances have been able to provide evidence that refutes his work, for example, that he was incorrect in asserting that Eskimos have many different words for snow (Pulham, source unknown, quoted by D. Hargreaves in University of Wessex seminar). Coupled with the fact that in America, in the 1950s and 1960s, Whorf's work was used in the debate which regarded black people as inferior to white 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.

Modern linguistics has often been more concerned with identifying similarities between languages rather than differences, particularly influenced by work on language universals (Chomsky 1965). Although there may be little place for 'linguistic determinism' in modern day linguistics, since Whorf was writing there has been both continued and renewed interest in the issue of 'linguistic relativity'. How far can language be said to shape world view and what are the connections between language and the culture in which the language is spoken? 'Linguistic relativity' is a much weaker version of the determinist position suggesting a connection between an individual's language and their own perception of reality but not suggesting the severity of constraints on reality that a purely determinist position would imply. Within this 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 contrast between languages, as Whorf did, the modern linguist often appears more concerned with language use within one culture, or one nation state, where speakers are identified as generally speaking the same language.

Language cannot be viewed in isolation from the culture in which it is spoken. As Hymes (1974) identified, what is important is the communicative event, the circumstances in which language use takes place, who says what to whom and how meanings are interpreted by the participants within any communicative event. Linguists have long made the distinction between the language system and language use in the tradition of Saussure's (cited in Cameron 1985) dichotomy between 'langue' and 'parole'. Chomsky (1965) distinguishes language 'competence' from language 'performance'. From a theoretical perspective linguists have looked closely at what may constitute a system of language, identifying elements of language in a grammatical framework that could be regarded as language universals. At the same time, socio-linguists have concentrated on language use rather than system, seeing system as a purely theoretical construct since language cannot be identified outside the circumstances in which it is being used.

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