[Laura Mills] Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf

Questions asked by Whorf:

1) “Are our own concepts of ‘time’, ‘space’, and ‘matter’ given in substantially the same form by experience to all men, or are they in part conditioned by the structure of particular languages?”

2) “Are there traceable affinities between (a) cultural and behavioral norms and (b) large-scale linguistic patterns?”

His answers:

1) No, these concepts “depend upon the nature of the language or languages through the use of which they have been developed…[and] upon the ways of analyzing and reporting experience which have become fixed in the language.” We see the same physical items, but create different ideas of them.

2) “There are connections but not correlations or diagnostic correspondences between cultural norms and linguistic patterns…there is a relation between a language and the rest of the culture of the society which uses it”. Behavioral reactions to language are very present.

My questions:

What does Whorf mean by “there are connections but not correlations” between culture and language? How does this compare to Sapir’s view of the link between language and culture? How do their ideas of the individual compare?

Although all languages are supposedly fully developed within their cultural goals, Sapir speaks of “primitive languages of Africa” and the “forms of speech of the more sophisticated peoples…of these more cultured peoples”. Can these two ideas be reconciled?

Is Sapir’s idea of “no causal link between language and culture” – combined with his definitions of culture and language – similar to the difference between calling Whorf a “linguistic relativist” rather than a “linguistic determinist”? Where exactly does such a distinction lie?

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