TOK Interlude

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. Language is not simply a reporting device for experience, but a defining framework for it.”

Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language Thought and Reality (1956)
There are about 7,000 languages spoken around the world — and they all have different sounds, vocabularies and structures. But do they shape the way we think? Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky discusses this question.

Whorf was a linguistics enthusiast and through his amateur fascination with language, and under the tutelage of the American linguist Edward Sapir, Whorf came to the conclusion that the languages we speak affect the way we think in the same way that a straitjacket affects the way we move. If he is correct, our thinking patterns can only be understood relative to our speaking patterns. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is therefore known as ‘linguistic relativity’ or ‘linguistic determinism.’ 

In this section you can read more about the way your thoughts are determined by the language you speak and decide for yourself if you believe your thoughts are controlled by your language, or whether the way you think about the world is influenced by the words that you use to express those thoughts. Begin by reading The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, then choose two or three more articles from the list below to discover more about the relationship between language and thought.

Class Activity: sapir-whorf icons

Watch this video by Carole Yue and Khan Academy, explaining various theoretical relationships between language and thought. After you finish, design four infographics or icons that represent these theories. Present your infographics to a classmate and explain each theory:

Learn about theories of the relationship between language and cognition.
  • Universalism
  • Piaget’s Theory
  • Vygostsky’s theory
  • Linguistic Determinism

Learner Portfolio

Do you agree with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? Record your learning from this section, along with your own thoughts on the idea that thinking is defined by the language you speak, in a one-two page journal entry.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: language and thought

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Although you will not be asked a TOK style question, being able to recognise the themes and ideas that you have studied here might help you interpret and evaluate a text insightfully. Below are examples of texts in which the writer explores themes to do with reading, writing, inspiration, creativity, and the ways people think. Annotate and analyse these texts and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Body of Work: Poetry in the Making by Ted Hughes

The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes likens the writing of a poem to glimpsing a mercurial animal in the snow. One of his most well-known works, The Thought-Fox is an ars poetica: a poem about the creative process of writing a poem.

In the 1960s, author Ted Hughes gave a series of talks for a BBC Schools radio series; these talks were later expanded and curated into the 1967 book Poetry in the Making. Intended as a teacher’s handbook and student resource, Poetry in the Making is an attempt to guide and inspire the imaginations of young writers. Hughes taught creative writing, and his approach was not to teach ‘how to write’ but “how to say what you really mean”. Hughes writes that “the latent talent for self-expression in any child is immeasurable” and his emphasis is on developing the discipline and courage of young people to free their imaginations and ‘awaken genius.’

Hughes believes that thoughts and feelings are prior to words; we become aware of our thoughts when we articulate them into words.  Therefore his creative process is like capturing a mercurial animal: once the poet has caught a glimpse of his subject, he needs to snare it in words, without maiming or killing it. He writes: “[A poem is] an assembly of living parts moved by a single spirit.  The living parts are the words, the images, the rhythms.  The spirit is the life which inhabits them when they all work together.  It is impossible to say which comes first, parts or spirit.  But if any of the parts are dead… if any of the words, or images or rhythms do not jump to life as you read them… then the creature is going to be maimed and the spirit sickly.  So, as a poet, you have to make sure that all those parts over which you have control, the words and rhythms and images, are alive” [9]. 

Here you can find selected extracts from Poetry in the Making, all of which discuss the nature of thought, imagination, creativity and how these are expressed – or repressed – through language. His talks are intertwined with samples of poetry (Hughes’ own and the poems of famous writers) that express the concepts he discusses. Together, these extracts form a Body of Work.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

IB Language and Literature Guide

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Poetry in the Making would be an ideal text to discuss in this assessed activity. You can investigate the Field of Inquiry Art, Creativity and Imagination and a potential Global Issue could be ‘Inspiration and the Creative Process.’ In both his original radio talks and his published work, Hughes reflects on writing as an art form, with a particular focus on writing poetry as an act of artistic creation. Hughes believes imagination and creativity are innate in all children, and the role of the teacher is to help them channel this creative energy. Talk with your teacher about how to pair this text successfully with a literary work, or use this list of ideas as a starting point:

  • John Keats’ poems – an obvious pairing would be with Keats’ odes, which explore the theme of art and creativity. In Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats explicitly questions the power and function of art, comparing the permanence of art to the fleeting nature of human lives. In Ode to a Nightingale he attempts to match the transporting power of the bird’s song with his own rhymes and a possible interpretation of La Belle Dame sans Merci is that she represents the inspiring-yet-destructive creative impulses of the artist himself.
  • The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy – similarly, this text would make a natural pair. Little Red Cap involves an imaginative retelling a young girl – symbolic of the poet herself – coming into her creative maturity, along with the help – or hindrance – of the big bad wolf.
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – perhaps a little more tricky, but Ted Hughes and Henry Higgins are both teachers. During Act 3 (Mrs Higgins at-home) Henry reveals his thoughts both about his own project (“It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul”) and about the way people don’t actually put into words or speak out loud what they really think.
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – in this powerful novel, the magistrate seems to be able to conceive of time differently to other officers of the empire. While they see time as a straight line pointing only into the future, he sees time as a cyclical process. His excavations of nearby ruins in the desert, and his obsession with writing, help to reveal this interesting aspect of Coetzee’s novel.
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie- a major theme of Dai Sijie’s novel is the transformative power of reading and writing. Until she is exposed to Western literature – Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet – the little seamstress had no idea of who she wanted to be – and who she might become in the future.

Categories:TOK Interlude

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