Last Updated 16 Jun 2020

Contrasting English with Other Language

Category Language
Essay type Research
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Q: Contrast English with one other language with respect to TWO particular points of grammar or vocabulary. With reference to that point of grammar/vocabulary, state how native speakers of these languages would be predicted to differ in their thinking or perception if we accept the linguistic relativity hypothesis. How might you test this prediction experimentally? This essay will discuss the linguistic relativity hypothesis contrasting the English language with the most common Chinese dialect, Mandarin.

The question of whether or not the language we speak shapes how we view the world has interested the fields of anthropology, psychology and linguistics for many years. Using two aspects of vocabulary, which I have chosen to be that of ‘space’ and ‘time’, I will attempt to predict how native Mandarin and English speakers may differ in their conceptions of the sequential order of time. Following these predictions I will outline a proposed method as to test the predictions experimentally. A definition and brief history of how the linguistic relativity hypothesis developed into what it is today is the necessary starting platform for this essay.

Today and indeed pning back through this century, Benjamin Lee Whorf is most commonly associated with the hypothesis of linguistic relativity. (Slobin, 1996, p. 70). However it is due to the arguments and advancing hypotheses of Hamann, Herder, Humboldt, Boas and Sapir that brought about today’s view of linguistic relativism (Gumperz & Levinson, 1996, p. 2). Hamann was the first German philosopher to bring light and discussion to the relationship of language and cognitive thinking. In 1762 Hamann recorded many ideas with attribute to linguistic relativism in his work ‘Kreuzzuge des Philologen’.

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Here Hamann states how “Language did not originate from thought, but its origin had been prior to thought, for thought presupposes a language in which it might manifest itself” (Beek, 2005, p. 7). Herder was Hamann’s student and it is visible in his work that he was influenced by the teachings of Hamann. The progression of this discussion began as Herder believed that language was a result of psychological, historical and natural forces, (McAfee, 2004, p. 28), and had no divine origin as thought by Hamann. Whorf also shared this belief among others with Herder. Whorf put such eliefs into his studies, the prevalent shared theory being that “external features of a particular language could provide clues to its inner character” (McAfee, 2004, p. 28). The 19th century paved way for the German philosopher and language theorist, Humboldt. Whorf drew many of his theories from those of Humboldt’s. Humboldt strongly believed that language and thought were one and that with the absence of language, cognition could not be articulated clearly, (McAfee 2004, p. 28). Humboldt is the first mentioned in this essay to seek a substantial amount of evidence in order to prove or further predict his thoughts on linguistic relativity.

Due to lack of concrete information present in the linguistic comparative research field, Humboldt backed up his claims by using evidence from non-western languages (Beek 2005, p. 8). One of his studies examined the different amount of words for the animal ‘elephant’, in the English and Sanskrit languages. He found that in comparison to the English word ‘elephant’ which carries only one meaning, there were several words for elephant in the Sanskrit language denoting many meanings. His concluding thoughts on this were that because of the differences in their vocabulary, the English and the Sanskrit would perceive the animal differently.

This led Humboldt to further believe that each culture had its own world view, a theory known and adapted by Whorf as ‘Weltanschauung’ (McAfee, 2004, p. 29) Humboldt’s theory ‘Weltanschauung’ was brought to America by the founder of the American School of Anthropology, Boas. This was due to the fact that Boas shared Humboldt’s view that each culture had a distinct identity and could only be fully understood through the study of its history, society, traditions and of course language (McAfee, 2004, p. 9). Boas, teacher of Sapir (Sapir, teacher of Whorf), was credited by Whorf with his theory that different exotic cultures exemplify different methods of thinking. It was Sapir that introduced Whorf to the claims made by his teacher, Boas. Whorf took this theory and altered it, stating that unlike Boas, he felt that it was linguistic structures rather than conceptual differences that led to different world views of different cultures (McAfee 2004, p. 29).

Sapir argues that through his article entitled “The status of linguistics as a science” it is the language of a society that shapes the world we live in. Sapir blatantly states that human beings are “at the mercy” of the language they speak. Whorf, learning and drawing from each of his predecessors gave meaning to his hypothesis of linguistic relativity where he believes that it is the different grammars of languages that lead to different types of observations and evaluations of “externally different facts of observation” (Gumperz & Levinson, 1996, p. 6).

Therefor it can clearly be seen that although the linguistic relativity hypothesis has come to being more commonly known as the ‘Whorfian Hypothesis’, it is not only Whorf who should be accredited with the hypothesis, but all minds that lead to the final wordings of Whorf. However, in today’s society and with the advancement of cognitive science, Whorf’s claims cannot stand alone. His view has been dissipated. Now leading the research are Lera Boroditsky, John A. Lucy and Stephen C. Levinson. These linguists are concerned with answering the question “Does language shape thought? , and relying more on evidence than thoughts and theories. This essay will conform to the modern resurgence of the question “Does language shape thought? ” Different languages have different vocabularies. Do people of different languages view the world differently because of their respective vocabularies? More specifically, does the differing vocabulary associated with space and time associated with different languages affect the speaker’s cognitive conceptions of the sequential order of time? Of course, many aspects of time are common to all languages and therefor cultures.

For example, yesterday is in the past and tomorrow is in the future. Indeed these concepts are universal across all languages. However, what is not universally accepted by all languages regarding the above statement is the sequential order of yesterday and tomorrow. For native English speakers, tomorrow would be thought to be in front of you, forward. Yesterday would be thought to be behind you, backwards. This is due to the use of the English language’s spatial terms representing time. ‘In front’ and ‘behind’ are spatial terms that shape the thoughts of English people’s perception of time.

This statement is meaningless without the comparison of another language with different conceptions of special awareness involving time. Mandarin. Mandarin also uses the spatial terms ‘in front’ (‘qian’) and ‘behind’ (‘Beihou’) when talking about time. However, unlike the English language, Mandarin uses vertical spatial morphemes to talk about the order of events, for example, tomorrow, yesterday, next month, last year etc. Boroditsky (2011, p. 1305-1328) Events that are yet to happen i. e. in the future are thought to be ‘up’ (‘shang’) and events in that have already happened i. . past events are thought to be ‘down’ (‘xia’) (Boroditsky et al, 2010, p. 1). There are some minor cases where English speakers do refer to time using vertical spatial terms, e. g. “Things will be better down the line. ” However it has been proven that Mandarin speakers think about time vertically more frequently than English speakers do (Boroditsky et al, 2010, p. 2). An experiment to verify this can be seen through Chan and Bergen’s workings, “Writing direction in? uences spatial cognition. Where a group of native English and Mandarin speakers were asked to spatially arrange temporal sequences shown to them in pictures, 30% of the time Mandarin speakers arranged the pictures vertically as opposed to the English speakers who didn’t arrange them vertically once. There are in fact many experiments to test the linguistic relativity hypotheses, regarding whether English and Mandarin speakers differ in their thinking and perception of time using spatial metaphors. The leader in this current field of research is the aforementioned Lera Boroditsky. Boroditsky has carried out many studies on this specific topic. Does Language Shape Thought? : Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time” published in 2001, Boroditsky deliberates the question, ‘Is processing altered in the long term by the use of metaphors”. In 2008, Boroditsky revisited the topic, carrying out further experiments concluding the Mandarin speakers are more inclined to arrange time vertically. The paper was titled “Do English and Mandarin speakers think differently about time? ” Boroditsky’s latest research and publishing’s, entitled “Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? has concluding experiments that claim to the affirmative of the relative linguistic hypothesis. Boroditsky’s previous workings did not consider the importance of the pairing of primes and targets. In her most recent studies it shows that disregarding these aspects will lead to further interference and instability. There are numerous methods of predicting if English and Mandarin speakers conceive different conceptions of the sequential order of time. Firstly, each race must be tested in their own language. Testing Mandarin speakers through English or vice versa introduces unnecessary variables into the experiment.

If Mandarin speakers were to be tested through English it would inevitably test if Mandarin speakers think differently when they speak English. The question of whether they think differently to English speakers would not be properly examined and answered, as they would be thinking habitually but rather how their newly acquired language has influenced them to speak (assuming the legitimacy of the Relative Linguistic Hypothesis. ) The test would separate a group of native English and Mandarin speakers into their native languages. Each participant is given 3 magnets with pictures on them.

One magnet depicts a picture of a sitting high up on a tree. The next picture sees the boy falling off of the tree. The final picture comprises of the boy on the ground crying. Each participant is then asked in their native language to stick their magnets, in order of events onto a magnetic board secured onto a wall. Presumably, assuming that Mandarin speakers construct time on a vertical axis, their pictures would be placed vertically. With the first picture placed at the bottom of the vertical line and the final picture at the top of the vertical line.

How Native Speakers of These Languages Would Be

In comparison it would be assumed that English speakers would place the pictures horizontally from left to right in starting order. The evidence from this experiment, would suggest that due to the different alignments of the pictures, Mandarin speakers do think differently to English speakers regarding the sequential order of time. With the available evidence from Lera Boroditsky’s 2010 publication, “Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? ” There proves to be many plausible, evidence based methods for testing the question do English and Mandarin speakers think differently?

Boroditsky’s most recent experiments takes 181 people, 118 were native English speakers and 63 were native Mandarin speakers whom also spoke English. The procedure involved projections of Woodey Allen’s face on a screen. There were two pictures, the first was shown on a fixed point on the screen for 2 seconds and the second was then shown in the same position. The second picture stayed there until the participants answered the question. The question posed to them was whether the second picture of Woody Allen was taken at an earlier or later stage in his life than the first.

To answer the question the participants had to press a key on a keyboard, one labelled earlier and one labelled later. The position of the keys were arranged into four groups. The first group, tested on 51 native English speakers and 26 Mandarin speakers, had their keyboards lying flat on the table top. The keys were on the horizontal axis, the left key labelled earlier and the right key labelled later in the first group. The left key labelled later and the right key labelled earlier in the second group.

For the remainder of participants, 67 native English speakers and 37 Mandarin speakers, their keyboards were positioned vertically to the table top. The keys were respectively arranged in a vertical order. The bottom key labelled earlier and the top key labelled later in the first group. The bottom key labelled later and the top key labelled earlier in the second group. The reasoning behind this experiment was that assuming people habitually represent time on a horizontal or vertical axis, asking them to view the axis in an incongruent order to their automatic reasoning, should cause an interference.

The results coincided with this reasoning. As discussed previously, both Mandarin and English speakers use horizontal spatial terms to represent time and both groups showed a canonicality effect on the horizontal axis. However as proven, Mandarin speakers think of time more frequently on the vertical axis than English speakers do. Only Mandarin speakers responded faster when the earlier key was placed on top in the vertical axis on the keyboard. This study clearly suggests that Mandarin speakers do think about the sequential order of time differently to English speakers.

Mandarin speakers make explicit use of the vertical axis regarding time more often than English speakers. With reference to the question posed by the linguistic relativity hypothesis, “Does language shape thought? ” the prediction of whether English and Mandarin speakers view the sequence of time differently was affirmed. Through the discussion of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis it became clear that the origins and developments of the hypothesis were needed in order to establish the exact question that was being asked in this essay.

The question was then specified to refer to two different languages, which were as mentioned, Mandarin and English. The thought questioned was that of time. The vocabulary dealt with was ‘space’ and ‘time’ and how they combine to comprise of different thoughts to the speakers of the languages. The conclusion and answer to the central question of this essay was yes, English speakers and Mandarin speakers do think differently. Mandarin speakers are much more likely to think about time on a vertical axis while English speakers think about time on a horizontal plane.

The question “Does language shape thought? ” has been a topic that has pned the centuries and perplexed anthropologists, linguists and psychologists. It seems this question has enlightened people over the centuries too, and the thought of language affecting cognition has been a desired theory. Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne is known to have said “to have a second language, is to have a second soul. ” References Beek, W. 2005. Linguistic Relativism, Variants and Misconceptions. Boroditsky, L. & Fuhrman, O. et al. 2010.

Do English and Mandarin Speakers think about time differently? CA: Elsevier B. V. Boroditsky, l. & Chen, E. 2011. How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D. Cognitive Science Society, Inc. Gumperz, J. J. & Levinson, C. S. 1996. Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. New York: Cambridge University Press. McAfee, C. 2004. The Linguistic Relativity Theory and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The McMaster Journal of Communication. Volume 1, Issue 1. Slobin, I. D. 1996. From “Thought and Language” to “Thinking for Speaking”. Cambridge University Press.

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