Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis a.k.a. B[W]anker’s Syndrome

Posted on Wed 08 Sep 2010 @ 10.19pm HKT

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a principle of linguistic relativity that has it that we think and behave differently from one another by virtue of the language we have come to speak from birth.

In other words, our non-linguistic behaviour is influenced or affected by the cultural and cognitive values contained (“encoded”) by the language. (Cognition relates to the mental processes of perception, memory, judgment and reasoning, which are opposites of emotion and willpower.)

I am no linguistics expert; I don’t even have any recognisably sensible or consistent linguistic training. I do, however, have one question to pose about this:

Bottom line, the Sapir-Whorf states something practically everyone who speaks more than two languages (especially two-plus native languages) knows to be true from common sense anyway. The trouble is, it has gained an immense degree of academic popularity because it states the matter in a roundabout way via linguistic categorisation — what language categories reveal about the mind.

You can see this crap cannot possibly come from anybody other than those who have been dosed out on LSD, psilocybin, magic markers and dried banana skins from the Swinging Sixties and the Groovy Seventies.

The problem with intellectualisations regarding reality and language with respect to perception and human behaviour is that the intellectual somersaults are completely unprovable. The Sapir-Whorf blindsides the dull of mind by couching commonsensical notions in a veneer of academicspeak. It’s presented as a fait accompli: good for you if you accept it, bugger off if you don’t.

In other words, it’s intellectual masturbation. Wankery, in short. It’s the fallback for the stupid, the narrow-minded and the superficial to describe things that are hard for them to understand in the first place.

Personally, I speak English and Chinese as first languages. I used to speak French, German and Italian quite well — until I lost them by dint of long living in Hong Kong — but that’s another story. I used to have friends and schoolmates who literally spoke six or more languages as first languages.

Talking with these linguists (i.e. people who are multilingual), your thinking can and often do make 180-degree turns when they switch languages (or what the linguistics camp pretentiously calls “code switching”). In that sense, you can’t argue with the basic premise of the Sapir-Whorf. Only when you realise that the changes and differences occur in the one and same person that you then realise the Sapir-Whorf completely breaks down, intellectually speaking.

Right now, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the linguistics equivalent of the hottest music video around — kind of like the linguistics and cognitive psychology equivalent of Katy Perry trying to show naked cleavage (but not actually showing it) while doing a passionate French kiss with Lady Gaga while massaged by Zooey Deschanel in latex and looked on by Akon and Charise singing in the sidelines. Phew! It puts you off sex and food at the same time, trust me.

If you are deep enough into this kind of stuff, you eventually take on board all the “thinking idioms” of your branch of learning (Edward de Bono, How To Be More Interesting, Penguin, 1998, 304 pages, ISBN 978-0140258370). It is those thinking idioms that causes you to accept the absurdity of the Sapir-Whorf — lock, stock and barrel.

Come to think of it, I suppose that in a way what exactly what the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is talking about, after all.

© Learn English or Starve, 2010. Image via c4c.

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