Issue 2 |

Ethnolinguistics, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and reindeer

by on February 12, 2015

Language, for many, is only a mode of communication, a way to express ideas. One mode, or language, would then be essentially the same as another, expressing the same concepts but with different sounds. This is one of the main concerns of ethnolinguistics. Ethnolinguistics is the branch of linguistics that discusses the relationship between language and culture; that we are affected, in our cultural behaviors and worldview, by the language we speak [1]. Explained by one of the main linguists associated with ethnolinguistics, Edward Sapir,

No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached [2].

The idea, also called linguistic relativism, is that language is not just a list of words and grammar structures that give us rules for how to express our ideas properly, but that language essentially defines how we see things, and influences our cognitive processes. Linguistic relativism, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, has been further divided into two versions, strong and weak, over time. Essentially, while the strong version argues that language determines cognition and thought, the weak version argues only that language influences cognition and thought. Linguists today are in general agreement with the weak version, and this has influenced several linguistic experiments, a few of which will be discussed below. The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, however, has fallen largely into disuse.

One of the best-known examples of this is with the Inuit language, where many people give the example that in Inuit, there are fifty words for snow. The original study, by the anthropologist Franz Boas, and the succeeding ‘snow’ lexicon, is now hotly contested, partially on the basis that Inuit is a family of languages, not an individual language. This concept, however, is also seen in other languages. In Saami, a language spoken in Norway, linguist Ole Henrik Magga found several hundred words for reindeer. For example, “čoavjjet” is a pregnant female reindeer; “leamši” is a short, fat female reindeer; and “skoalbmi” is a reindeer with a long, hooked nose. [3] In the field of ethnolinguistics, however, this is looked at more in terms of its cultural effects. Because they have so many ways to describe a reindeer, how does that affect the ways in which they see and conceptualize it?

Besides interesting and unique words, however, there are several well-known linguistic experiments that relate to the concept of linguistic relativism and influence our understanding of it. These experiments give a small insight into the way language shapes our conceptualizations. In many languages throughout the world, inanimate objects are given a gender; in Latin, for example, nouns are classified as male, female, or neuter. The study of grammatical gender looks at the many influences of gendered languages. In 2003, three linguists, Lera Boroditsky, Lauren Schmidt, and Webb Phillips, published an article with results from an experiment on gendered language and gendered concepts. Using Spanish and German native speakers, two languages that assign gender to inanimate objects, it was found that we generally assign feminine qualities to nouns marked with feminine gender, and vice versa [4].

To carry out the experiment, the researchers showed both Spanish and German speakers pictures of the same object; the only difference was that the object was feminine in one language and masculine in the other. They then asked the participants to explain the object and took note of what words and phrases were used in the explanation. They found that when a masculine noun is used for a word, even when it seems arbitrary, speakers generally think of that object within a masculine frame, assigning it more male-oriented characteristics. For example, “moon” is feminine—la luna—in Spanish and masculine—der Mond—in German. While Spanish speakers described the moon as dainty, beautiful, and nurturing, German speakers described it as forceful, omnipotent, and rugged. The difference in qualities, or conceptualizations, of the same object, shows simply how language can shape us.

This said, think back to the example above of Saami and the words for reindeer. In that example, with their fifty words for snow, we see what suggests the opposite: The importance of snow in their culture influences their language and its lexicon. Potentially, then, it is not a one-way affect-effect relationship. Perhaps while language structures influence our thoughts and cognition, in the same way our pre-existing cultural importances can influence the development of our language.

In another experiment, Harriet Manelis Klein looked at how spatial perception changes depending on the language. She focused her studies on Toba, a language spoken in South America. Toba has noun classifiers, meaning different ways to categorize a noun, for an object that is in view, out of view, going out of view, and coming into view. They also have classifiers for nouns that are vertical, horizontal and extended. Manelis Klein found that because Toba has several advanced spatial markers inherent to the language, native Toba speakers are more spatially aware of objects [5].

Toba speakers, then, are able to provide a much more detailed account of a simple description. For instance, examine the following sentence: “The cat is biting the mouse.” Depending on the way the two nouns are classified in the sentence, the cat can either be in view or out of view. Additionally, the mouse can be vertical or horizontal within the cat’s mouth. The following two examples illustrate this, with a morpheme by morpheme gloss. The morpheme POS is the positional marker, and the meaning it carries is in parentheses in the translation.

ñe-ʔep-tak-oʔ                                               s-ma-ta-pe-wek

1SG-hunt-ASP-POS                            1SG-move contentedly-ASP-POS-DIR

I was hunting (on my knees)           I amble contentedly (in a circular direction)

If a language requires a speaker to make these classifications effortlessly every time a picture is described, it is easy to imagine how this would increase inherent spatial awareness. As an English speaker, I’m generally not aware of the spatial position of mice in the mouths of cats present or otherwise. If asked, I probably couldn’t tell you if the mouse was horizontal, vertical, or extended; I only know for sure that it was in the cat’s mouth because that is what my language requires of me to properly communicate that idea.

With ethnolinguistics in mind, then, you can start to pay attention to what is unique about your own language. Are there words in your vocabulary that don’t exist in the vocabulary of your multi-linguistic friends? Do you conceptualize certain objects differently because of the way they have been gendered or classified in your language, whether arbitrarily or not? Are you aware of different things naturally because your language requires that awareness? Our native language shapes our worldview in certain ways. As we learn new languages and can compare them to our own, it is possible that our perceptions and conceptions will be even further altered as we learn about the languages that influence us, and the way our culture may even influence our language.


[1] ‘Ethnolinguistics’ at Britannica.com

[2] Sapir, Edward (1929). The status of linguistics as a scienceLanguage 5(4).

[3] Magga, Reindeer and Snow

[4] Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L., & Phillips, W. (2003). Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. In Gentner & Goldin-Meadow (Eds.,) Language in Mind: Advances in the study of Language and Cognition.

[5] Mathiot, Madeleine (1979). Ethnolinguistics: Boas, Sapir and Whorf Revisited. The Hague: Mouton.

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