The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
The English language has been formed and developed over many centuries into the form with which we now associate, and recognise, it today. The development and change of language can be primarily attributed to societal and cultural pressures, which are occurring and influencing its speakers, which is the primary claim of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The pressures influencing language modification can be seen to arise from a multitude of sources, be it internal or external ones, with their overall result-varying dependent upon their impact on the population of that language region.
Change within the English language can be seen to have come about as a result of the various influences it has seen, such as that of invasion and the movement of people, technological development, changing social attitudes, general changes in attitude to what is perceived to be acceptable or not and the changing of word usage and meaning. Language is a relative concept that is constantly adapting and changing to reflect the societal and cultural influences that affect its speakers.
German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt summed up the changing nature of language in 1836 by stating that: There can never be a moment of true standstill in language, just as little as in the ceaseless flaming thought of men. By nature it is a continuous process of development. 1 This idea of a language moving constantly and never completely staying still is applicable to any language as it can be shown to be changing through pressures placed upon it by a dominant faction of society. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (Appendix One) directly links language and culture by stating that:
The content of a language is directly related to the content of a culture and the structure of a language is directly related to the structure of a culture. 2 The hypothesis is claiming that language is created from a culture and that a language is organised is directly linked to how the society it is created from is structured. If following this theory therefore language change is primarily attributed to the changes that are happening in the culture and society as it is only from these that any language can evolve and be brought into existence.
The change in the English language, into the form in which we know it today, can be shown to hold true to this idea as it is not any one language that forms it but instead a large variety of languages which have all had influences on what English is regarded as today. At the core of the English language is an Anglo Saxon origin (Appendix One), which has been changed and manipulated by the changes in dominant forces in charge of the country. The invasion of England by the Vikings, between 787 and 793, led to the Norse language being introduced to this country, and having a resulting influence upon English.
When Old English and Norse were brought back together a fundamental change happened to English as word inflection was got rid of and word order become important within language. As the Vikings left their influence on English remained and when further invasion occurred, such as that by the Danes around 900 AD, their influences upon the language remained and transformed it ways, which can still be observed today, by such things as, mentioned above.
The influences on language by invasion can further be seen by the Norman Conquest in 1066 when over 50,000 new words entered into the language, resulting in not only a national domination of a country but also a linguistic domination of it. (Appendix Three) These external influences on society throughout history can be directly shown, therefore, to have a result on how English has been formed and developed into the nature that it now exists on. However, although external forces have resulted in changes to language internal ones are important and have significantly contributed to the changes in language.
Internal forces such as that of the ‘great vowel shift’ of the fifteenth century, where the vowel was shifted from the end of the word into the middle of it, have also contributed to language change as remnants of this influence can still be seen within language today (Appendix Four). Language change because of the influences of other cultures influencing the English culture is not all due to the invasion of this country but also to the invasion of other countries by the English and technology allowing for more interaction between other cultures.
The migration and movement of the English has meant that words, which normally would only be common among other cultures languages, have become commonplace and well used within English society, as travellers brought them back to this country. The influence of other cultures can clearly be seen when considering common words in use in today’s society, such as shampoo, which is of Hindu origin, Algebra, which is of Arabic origin, Vodka, which is of Russian origin, and Pizza which is of Italian origin.
3 These words are in common usage everyday in society and would not exist within the English language if it were not for travel abroad. One of the biggest impacts on the English language has been because of the growth of the USA and its dominance within the world. English has been changed by the growth of the USA as it has introduced new words revolving around the world of technology, business and the culture of the young and their influences on language.
Technological development within the world can also be shown to have had a significant influence upon language, resulting with it ultimately being changed and altered to reflect these developments. The creation of new technology, such as the computer and all of its advances, has resulted in new words being formed or created. As technological developments have advanced further more and more new words have been needed to accurately describe this progression which has resulted in words such as ‘laptop’ and ‘microchip’ being common words in today’s vocabulary whereas they where none existent half a century ago.
Society’s need and want for further advancement and development of technology will have further affects on the English language as more new words will need to be formed to help newer generations understand each new development. The advancement of technology, which enables interaction between cultures to be more accessible, has also influenced the English language. The advancement of vehicles and means of travelling have resulted in the influence of several cultures to have impact upon the English language.
The migration of other cultures to England and the migration of the English abroad have had a significant influence on language as it has meant that words which exist in other society’s have been able to travel to this country and become part of its everyday language. The advancement of communication technology has also resulted in their being a development of the English language as television and the media have introduced new words to the population and have familiarise them so significantly that they have become commonly used and understood.
This influence on society has resulted in a new vocabulary of words, which have successfully made it into use by the population at large directly because of the development of communication technology. The development of language can be attributed to a change of the position of a dominant majority of its society and therefore a ‘language change involves a change in norms. ‘4 The standard way of behaving in society (a norm) change over time as new generations are born and new influences affect the members of each new generation.
It is the change in attitudes of behaviour and of what it is acceptable in society or not that allows for changes in language to occur in reflection of this. The change in attitudes towards such issues as racist comments and remarks is a change of a norm, which has been reflected in a change in language. While in previous centuries and past decades it was permissible to make racist remarks a change in moral values has effected a change in norms, which now profoundly frowns upon such comments.
The change in language that occurred because of this can be seen by comparisons of dictionaries from the past and present and the noticeable absence of these defamatory words. English can be seen as a progressive language due to the change, which occurs within it throughout history as a consequence of new generations being born and raised. New generations change what is acceptable and permissible in society and change their language to reflect this transformation.