Language and Culture Assignment

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During the 20th century, two theoretical standpoints were influential in the study of the relationship between language and culture. The first of them, Linguistic Determinism was formulated by the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in the model called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It contends that people's language affects the way they think. Hence, language shapes culture.

A second model for understanding the relationship between language and culture is proposed by linguistic anthropologists working in the area of sociolinguistics. This model maintains that a person's context and social position shape the content, form, and meaning of her/his language. Hence, culture shapes language. Contemporary sociolinguists are active in an emerging area called Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) that focuses on the relations of language and social inequality, power and stigma, and agency and resistance.

How do you evaluate the two theoretical perspectives succinctly described above? Your response should address the following areas:

    • 1. What are the main ethnographic evidence given by Sapir and Whorf to support their thesis? Be specific.
    • Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) - Relations of Language and Social Inequality, Power and Stigma, and Agency and Resistance

    • 2. What is the evidence you can glean from the materials given in the module (original online reading) in support of the sociolinguistics theoretical perspective? Once again, be specific.
  • a little backround on cda

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Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Linguistic Relativity and Linguistic Determinism The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis ◼ ◼ Sapir maintains that specific languages serve not only as a medium of communication, but also to define and guide our perception of experience. Whorf contends that each language constitutes a frame of reference that orders a particular people’s view of the world. Edward Sapir (1884-1939) ◼ ◼ Language affects all human experience to a certain extent. Vocabulary ◼ ◼ Reflects what is culturally important to people Influences what they pay attention to Sapir ◼ ◼ Speakers give names (words) to important entities and events in their physical and social worlds, and Once named, those entities and events become culturally and individually noticed and experienced. Sapir ◼ ◼ In other words, the relationship between vocabulary and cultural value is bidirectional. Over time, this interdependent process creates and reinforces a unique mental model for each culture. Sapir ◼ “The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached” (Sapir, 1949: 162). Sapir’s Evidence ◼ Sapir examined the vocabulary of the Paiute people living in semi dessert regions of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. The Paiute, he noted, distinguish fine details of their environment with separate words. Sapir’s Evidence ◼ Among them are words for (as translated by Sapir) “divide, ledge, sand flat, semicircular valley, circular valley or hollow, spot of level ground in mountains surrounded by ridges, plain valley surrounded by mountains, plain, dessert, knoll, plateau, canyon without water, canyon with creek, wash or gutter, gulch, slope of mountain or canyon wall, rolling country intersected The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis ◼ According to this hypothesis, the relationship between language and thought exists: ◼ ◼ At the level of vocabulary, and At the level of grammar The Relationship between Language and Thought ◼ Exists at the level of vocabulary because the latter reflects the social and physical environment of the people. Sapir suggests that the vocabulary of a language not only reveals what is important to the speaker but also cues the speaker to be more sensitive to the named features of their environment. ◼ E. g. The Inuit have a variety of words for different kinds of snow. We (the American English speakers) have only one. The Aztecs in Mexico use the same word for cold, ice, and snow. The Relationship between Language and Thought ◼ Exists at the level of grammar. Grammar of a language and the modes of thought characteristic of its speakers are interrelated. ◼ As the following two dominant types of sentences in English language show, the subject of the sentence (book, Sally) is spoken of as if it were an enduring object, something stable through time that acts or acted on by something else. The pervasive tendency in English to view the world as being made up of objects, so that experiences described in English lose the fluidity of passing experience: The book is green (the subject-predicate type). Sally runs (the actor-action type). The Relationship between Language and Thought ◼ In English grammar, time is conceptualized as if one could isolate a piece of it: E. g. I’ll study for three hours. It is the same way we select food: E. g. I’ll take three hamburgers. Our sense of controlling time is evident in English grammar. Americans’ rich vocabulary for expressing units of time is linked to their concern for the temporal ordering of activities. The Relationship between Language and Thought ◼ ◼ Some languages have built into their grammar the characteristic that a speaker must specify how he acquired the information s/he is imparting. For example, in Kwakiutl language, the speaker must indicate how s/he knows about an action individuals other than herself/himself are performing: The Relationship between Language and Thought The lady was washing clothes. ◼ ◼ ◼ Did the speaker actually see the lady washing clothes? Did the speaker infer that she was washing clothes from the sound that s/he heard? Did a third party tell the speaker that she was washing clothes? The Relationship between Language and Thought ◼ English language does not have this feature, though the information can be given by the speaker if s/he wishes to do so: The lady was washing clothes and I saw it. The lady was washing clothes and I heard it. The lady was washing clothes and John told me about it. The Relationship between Language and Thought ◼ ◼ Language organizes experience, and the people who speak different languages organize what they experience differently. In every language, grammatical rules are obligatory. They remain unconscious. The speakers of a language are usually not aware of them, though they guide their utterances. ◼ Linguistic anthropologists who make inferences on universal features of language, linking them to uniformities in the human brain are skeptical about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Noam Chomsky, for example, pointed out that human brain has a limited set of rules for organizing language, so that all languages share certain common elements or linguistic universals. Language, Behavior, and Thought: Metaphor and Key Metaphor ◼ By sharing a language we also share a view of the world, and that view is expressed in vocabulary, grammar, and metaphors of the language. Metaphor ◼ Metaphors take language from one domain of experience and apply it to another domain. When language is extended from one domain to another, the meaning is also extended. In other words, metaphor involves not only speaking of one experience in terms of another, but also understanding one experience in terms of another. Metaphor Metaphors are not simply verbal devises that we use to make our language colorful and economical. They are like templates, theories, lenses, or filters we can use to help us understand one domain of experience in terms of another. Key Metaphor ◼ ◼ ◼ Most societies seem to have one or more domains from which they borrow exclusively for metaphor. These domains become key metaphors that give each culture a style that makes the culture distinctive. E. g. American key metaphors of war and economic exchange, and Kwakiutl key metaphor of hunger and eating. Key Scenario ◼ ◼ Societies may also have key scenarios—stories or myths that portray values and beliefs. E. g. the heroic quest scenario is deeply rooted in American literature and myth (as in the case of Dorothy in Wizard of Oz and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars) ...
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What Sapir-Whorf state is to be true, the two, that is language and culture, affect each
other, Language shapes the things that the society gives importance to and the culture influence
the innovation of words, phrases, metaphors and the power of select words of a language. Sapir
gives us the example of the semi-dessert region of Arizona, Utah and Nevada whose language
has been influenced by their surrounding...

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