I’ve been reading today about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is basically the idea in linguistics that how a person relates to and behaves in the world around them comes from the language that they speak. I’m totally fascinated by this idea, and while I don’t think I’m so into it that I think that non-gender-specific language is going to eradicate sexism, it’s kind of a cool thing to think about.

Are our thoughts really rooted in our language? Sometimes I write things, and then think, “That’s not quite what I wanted to say.” But if what I want to say literally cannot be expressed in my language, can I even think it? Can people really be dumbstruck, speechless, or have no words left to say something?

It kind of makes all this poetry and prose seem so limiting, but at the same time, there are so many beautiful and wonderful words with which to say things. And there are also so many sights and sounds and emotions that I don’t know if I would want to encapsulate in language.

I was reading yesterday about Martin Luther’s ideas about God’s grace, and how it’s given so freely to all people. And yet, there’s no explanation over why people go to hell, or whether people go to hell, or if there is a hell. But the article I was reading said something to the effect of Luther simply saying it was a mystery, and something that we as humans shouldn’t even attempt to explain.

Perhaps a paradox really can exist, and while our thoughts may be limited by words, our emotions and our faith can accept things without having to explain them to ourselves or to anyone else.


5 responses to “limits

  1. I briefly read the article on Wikipedia about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesisand do not have full understanding of it. As a counselor I do not think that people’s conceptualization of linguistics has a determinational effect upon thier outlook or behavior. In studying small children of any culture with limited vocabularys we can see that they express the same needs (Maslow’s Hierarchy) as children of the same age group from another culture. I think that meeting needs, and then being influenced by social systems determines behavior. Language is the means of communicating systematic precepts to younger members of the system, and therefore language may have an influence in that regard. But even changing the language we use, we still have the same needs. Needs unequivocally create our motivation. If we do not have food, it is of little consequence what language we speak we are going to seek out food. Ok that is my reply to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Except to say I belive Whorf was a Klignon on Star Trek:TNG and that I may not completly understand the Hypothesis in my limited reading of the article.

  2. OK I meant to say, has little to no determinational effect on our behavior.

  3. Interesting post, Sarah. There are times when I know what I’m thinking and it seems to be so tied up in emotion and who I am deep in my soul that I simply can’t put it into words. It’s a frustrating feeling, but also kind of fascinating because it’s my thought and a part of me that no one else will ever see or capture.

    How are wedding plans? Mine are swell except for the mother-in-law-to-be. What’s the date?

  4. I don’t know you, but you are linked to some people I do know. And since you didn’t ask, here’s my reply:


    The hypothesis states not so much that our entire psychological state is dictated by language, but the broader implication is that our culture affects our language, but also that our language affects our culture. I took a class on linguistic anthropology, and it basically centered in this hypothesis.

    The idea is that, for example, as Americans, we are a very assertive and long-winded people. Most of us like to talk, but not to listen. This is reflected by the way we interact: “Give me that thing.” Very direct, very me-centered. In other cultures, where active lsitening is more valued (I believe Japanese culture was the example here) a direct command or request (“Hand me the remote”) is considered rude. You would hear something more like “Having that in my posession would make me happy.” Much more passive, and places the responsibilty on the listener. So our language has some effect on how we think and act. Or hwo we think and act has some effect on our language. Which is the cause and which is the effect? The SWH suggests that there is evidence to support both.

    (I got an A in that class.)

  5. Woo, see, that’s what I love about hypotheses. They’re not proven, but some of ’em sure are interesting.

    And I think linguistics is a really interesting crossroads of my background, communications, and Jeff’s, psychology… with a little history, pop culture, and geography thrown in for good measure.

    Times like this make me wonder why I didn’t keep going to school!

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