Language and Values: Sapir-Whorf and Pierre Bourdieu

Does changing how we talk about things really change our values?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is often taught in intro-to-anthro classes. It is a linguistic theory that discuss the role of  language in shaping values, rather than just reflecting them or interrelating with them. Thus, it has been argued that it should be possible to reduce “unwanted” parts of culture by changing the language used to discuss it.

The proponents of the hypothesis argue that since culture is written in language, it should be possible to modify culture by changing the language we use. If true, it would make social engineering incredibly efficient and predictable.

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theoretical background of political correctness–the idea that if we change how we talk about certain subjects, it will change how we think about them. Unfortunately, while language does play a role in shaping values, it probably doesn’t play a role as strong as some readings of the theory suggest.

Instead, the “language” of political correctness has become a new status language, and become a social tool for inclusion and exclusion. Choosing the correct words has become a marker of status and education. But like other status markers, it is subject to both manipulation and individual agency. Saying the right things doesn’t mean making the right decisions.

If we step back and look, there are costs for political correctness as well as advantages. On one level, changing the way we talk about race, gender, and other contested categories does affect positive change. But on another level, socially shunning (not hiring, or even firing) people who don’t take part in the new “status language”–even one that ostensibly promotes equality–makes honest discussion of such topics more challenging.

Praxis Makes Perfect

Past the Sapir-Whorf hypothsis, we might look to Bourdieu‘s praxis theory, which suggests that we learn values through modeled behavior (action) rather than by being told (language). With this approach, language is simply one category of action that we model. If this theory is right, or if it at least models actual processes better, social engineering becomes understandably more difficult. But at the same time it helps explain the intransigence of culture–culture just doesn’t change the way we want it to.

“Do what I say, not what I do” often fails–just ask any parent. Bourdieu‘s praxis theory explains why. While our cultural ideas of education often revolve around reading books and listening to lectures, people often learn better from, if you’ll pardon the phrase, “monkey see, monkey do.”


3 thoughts on “Language and Values: Sapir-Whorf and Pierre Bourdieu”

  1. “Unfortunately, while language does play a role in shaping values, it probably doesn’t play a role as strong as some readings of the theory suggest.”

    “Unfortunately”? I’m actually quite relieved that simply changing language doesn’t change culture so easily.

    1. If S-W were wholly and completely true, the world would be pretty terrifying.

      And yet, sometimes we act as if S-W is true, attaching our identities to words and treating signifiers as the signified.

  2. I had to write a paper on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for my grad school and I think it’s interesting, although I don’t agree with it. In my view, our language is shaped by our experience and nature, not the other way around. Humans are immensely creative and if there is a move to narrow or refine the language (such as political correctness or Newspeak in 1984), humans will break out and form their own slang for what they want to express, or subvert the accepted speech. An example of this is referring to mentally challenged students as “special”. It was first introduced to remove the stigma or mental or physical disability, but instead of changing people’s attitudes, people changed the word. Now the connotations of “special” are as negative as any word used before it (at least in certain situations).

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