Here’s the scenario: You’re a race car driver, and suddenly you find yourself in a high school Driver’s Ed class as a student. While you’re sure the instructor in the passenger seat knows how to drive a car, you can’t help but notice all of the details he’s leaving out while trying to teach you.
That experience is what it’s like if you wait until your senior year to take general education courses. It might not happen every class or with every reading, but at some point you will know more about the topic than the textbook is willing to tell other students, and knowing that it wasn’t exactly correct in describing the field you study, you begin to doubt every claim it makes.
You’ve probably heard this one before: language shapes our culture by limiting the ways that individuals can perceive and communicate about the world.
This phenomenon is called linguistic relativity, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism. It’s discussed in general education courses like Women’s Studies and Cultural Anthropology.
During my time as an English major at ETSU, I’ve spent more time discussing linguistic relativity outside of my department than inside, which is strange because the theory is a linguistic topic and concern.
As a future linguist, when I run across claims like, “Language maintains sexism and racism, for instance, by shaping our understandings and limiting options for self-definition. In this way it is important to consider how language shapes our reality and helps structure the everyday realities of our lives,” in “Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions,” the textbook for Intro to Women’s Studies, I’m interested to hear more.
This excerpt describes linguistic relativity as a necessary but awful truth in our lives, but linguists aren’t so convinced.
In 1991, the “Rethinking Linguistic Relativity” symposium was held. During the week-long event, scholars from seven countries and from varied disciplines attempted to find how or if linguistic relativity fits in with modern research.
Their findings included that it no longer seems appropriate to believe that “our language forces us to mold our conceptual categories” or that “a specific language constrains thinking and perception in particular directions, which add up to a culture-specific world view.”
Furthermore, it was seen that “cognitive psychology as a whole remains highly resistant to the suggestion that there could be systematic cultural effects in thinking,” and that while languages may force a specific way of thinking, this occurs only while someone is speaking. Some were even dubious of this small proposal in favor of linguistic relativity’s effects on culture.
That is to say, it’s a contentious topic in the field of linguistics, so treating it as a fact in a textbook for a general education course seems … wrong.
More broadly than that, though, there is a lesson to be learned from this, whether you’re also a senior who waited a few years to take that easy course or you’re a freshman trying to get through them as fast as possible: Under every seemingly simple statement that is claimed as true, there is a group of people working in a much larger conversation that aims to confirm, deny or reinvent that “truth” in light of new findings. This is the world of research, and it’s massive.