What is Linguistic Relativity?

A few weeks ago, I watched a movie called Arrival. It was recommended to me as one of the best linguistics movies of all time, so I knew I had to take a look. I won’t give a synopsis of the movie quite yet to avoid spoiling it for you, but I highly recommend you check it out. It truly tells an incredible sci-fi story.

The central idea of the movie is a phenomenon known as linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Whorfianism states that a person’s worldview and cognitive processes are determined by the language they speak. The phenomenon is split into two parts: the strong hypothesis and the weak hypothesis, the latter of which is believed to be accurate today. The strong hypothesis states that worldview and cognition are limited by language, while the more widely accepted weak hypothesis holds that language only affects worldview and cognitive functions.

The idea originated in the 1920s and has been widely debated since its introduction. For instance, the strong hypothesis was initially accepted over the weak hypothesis, but over time the complete dominance of language on worldview seemed less and less likely. Many philosophers, psychologists, and linguistics have discussed and contributed to the theory, making slight alterations to make the theory more logical to them. Interestingly, an American linguist named Joshua Fishman introduced his own idea called whorfianism of the third kind. Refocusing the theory on uncommon languages, he criticized Ogden’s Basic English (a simplified version of the English language used in teaching English as a second language) for permanently limiting the cognitive capabilities of the learner and changed the hypothesis to state that language is key to culture.

In the late 1980s and 90s, rising interest and advancement in cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics renewed discussion of linguistic relativity. Cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff argued that the theory was demonstrated by speakers of different languages using different metaphors to get their points across. He also refuted critics of the theory by demonstrating that they were using novel definitions of linguistic relativity in their arguments.

In Arrival, the hypothesis is put to the test in a fascinating, if currently impossible scenario (Spoiler Warning). In the movie, aliens arrive on Earth, and linguists are quickly dispatched to try to communicate with them. After an extended period of grueling work, the protagonist learns to speak the alien language, but there’s a catch. Because the language is not time-based – the entire sentence is generated at once with no clear beginning, middle, or end – the cognitive process of speakers of the language also perceive time differently, following the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The results of this side effect are extremely important to the movie’s plot, and they bring up fascinating questions as to what would happen if the scenario the movie presents ever becomes a reality. I’ll leave you to discover the significance of the hypothesis on your own, either in a plot synopsis or at the movie’s end.

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