Big Brother: Orwell, Sapir-Whorf, and Evv'ythang
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis theorizes that thoughts and behavior are determined (or are at least partially influenced) by language. If true in its strongest sense, the sinister possibility of a culture controlled by [George Orwell's] Newspeak or some other language is not just science fiction. Since its inception in the 1920s and 1930s, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has caused controversy and spawned research in a variety of disciplines including linguistics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and education. To this day it has not been completely disputed or defended, but has continued to intrigue researchers around the world.
Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf brought attention to the relationship between language, thought, and culture. Neither of them formally wrote the hypothesis nor supported it with empirical evidence, but through a thorough study of their writings about linguistics, researchers have found two main ideas. First, a theory of linguistic determinism that states that the language you speak determines the way that you will interpret the world around you. Second, a weaker theory of linguistic relativism that states that language merely influences your thoughts about the real world.
.................................................. .................................................. ............ The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
I've spent most of my life rummaging around in the world of ideas as one might wander through a flea market. But until a week or two ago I'd never heard of Sapir or Whorf, even though the issues they devoted their time to are close to many of my own interests.
Thanks mainly to Mirabell, Galatea92, and Mesnalty, I've had the pleasure of discovering what is to me a whole new snow-globe of focused thought. We've all but hijacked waalkwriter's "aesthetic philosophy" thread, so I thought perhaps we should move the discussion to its own carrel in the stacks, and return his thread to him rather than drown it like a kitten in a pail of linguistic theory.
The fun thing about being a dilettante is that you get to spend your time being distracted by shiny notions; the main drawback is that you risk spreading yourself too thin. One person's beaten gold is another's pond scum, and perhaps the passage cited above is just too basic to appeal to the two M's and G92 -- otoh the article I pulled it from begins with a quote from Orwell's 1984 and points in all sorts of provocative directions, including toward conceptual metaphor, analogy, and many other fundamental notions about language and our understanding of life, the universe, and everything.
Big Brother is now 26 years past his sell-by date, and for a fair number of you Orwell may seem a bit of a period piece; for others closer to my age, for whom 1984 was actually a part of the future when we started thinking about it, some Orwellian anxieties have been realized, some haven't, and still others remain very much up in the air.
Interested though I am in these matters, I'm not qualified to do more than ask questions. I hope the linguists will snatch this thread from me and run with it so that the rest of us can sit in the peanut gallery and see what develops. I know I'd like that -- and it seems to me that the first two paragraphs of this post are an adequate jumping-off point from which to wobble off into cognitive theory.
"In the end most things -- perhaps all things -- turn out to have been appropriate." -- Anthony Powell, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant