Language Speaks Us

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed by two Yale anthropologists who wanted to investigate language's influence in fashioning the social reality of speakers. After conducting extensive research on the Hopi Indians of Arizona, Benjamin Whorf concluded that language "is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas. . . We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages."

The following experiment attempted to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by interviewing bilingual Japanese women living in the U.S.. The women spoke both languages with comparable regularity. A bilingual Japanese interviewer asked the same questions to the women in two separate interview sessions. In the first session, the only language spoken was Japanese. In the second, only English was spoken. At the two interviews, the women were asked to complete the same sentences:

"When my wishes conflict with my family's. . .
. . . it is a time of great unhappiness." (Japanese)
. . . I do what I want." (English)

"Real friends should. . .
. . . help each other." (Japanese)
. . . be very frank." (English)

Reference: Peter Farb, World Play: What Happens When People Talk (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 184

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