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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

A simple definition for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would be that the language we use conveys what we have the capacity to think. Whorf says that the grammar in a language is not only a tool for reproducing ways to think but rather the reason for the ideas.  A person also speaks a language that best suits their culture and how the world is seen to them. For example the Nuer have a significant relationship with their cattle, to the Nuer using cattle in their language is a great comparison when discussing significance but to an American it would likely seem less important.
When relating or interpreting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to Shakespeare in the Bush written by Laura Bohannan, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, I noticed that you could relate some of the situations in her ethnography to the hypothesis. In the beginning it shows a great example that the British see Shakespeare as being able to be misinterpreted by Americans probably because of his worldview towards Americans. Bohannan uses the hypothesis to say that she feels that human nature is the same worlds apart and that the General plot of Hamlet could be understood no matter where she told the story. Bohannan writes, “ Hamlet had only one possible interpretation and that one universally was obvious.”
Some examples of the hypothesis in this essay by Bohannan would be when she becomes shaken because the only translation for the word scholar in their language was something similar to another word that meant witch. It makes me wonder however had she only knew the language well enough that she didn’t know that there might have been anther word in the language that may have meant something similar to scholar. Anther example is when Bohannan becomes upset that her story has taken on a different meaning at first to the elders when she is trying to discuss the factors of marriage between Hamlets mother and uncle. It states that the elder told her that such genealogical details made the difference, she never took into account once she started the story how much weight that area of Hamlet would have effected the story because to English speakers that part is important only that we need to gather the assumption that the uncle is bad, not that he was right for marrying his brothers wife and so very quickly. To the listeners two years was entirely to long to wait to remarry because another great purpose in the lives of the listeners was farming and the need of someone to manage these tasks are great. So something that was not as important in the play of Hamlet to others was a great significance to the listeners. They had believed that the mother and uncle behaved accordingly. She also in her frustration to get her story across in the way she wanted began to use English words which confused them even more because their ideas of an omen or zombie were close but not the same as a ghost from the English language.  Also the confusion and frustration of Bohannnan began to show when the elders dismissed the idea that water alone can cause you to drowned.
The elders believed that she had made some mistakes in her story but that they would not hold her at fault because she was starting to get used to their language so again they felt that their language was used but that she was the one making the mistakes and that she could have corrected them better having known their language even though she was stating the story of Hamlet the way it is know to us and only changed it to use words she thought they could relate to.
I think that there are a lot of other examples of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in this essay but these were the most obvious to me so I chose them. I think the part of the hypothesis I understand the most is the part about  when you translate a word there may not be another word in the language you are translating to that best describes what you are trying to get across.



Posted: May 13, 2005 



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