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Sociolinguistics linguistic relativity


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A discussion of the Sapir-whorf hypothesis and linguistic relativity.

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Sociolinguistics linguistic relativity

  1. 1. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009 A rose by any other name: A contemporary assessment of the scope of Linguistic RelativityContentsIntroduction ............................................................................................................................................ 2The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis – History and definition .......................................................... 4 A definition of thought, culture, language and „world-view‟ ............................................................... 4 The stronger form – Linguistic Determinism ....................................................................................... 6 The weaker form of Linguistic Relativity ............................................................................................ 8Times have changed – a different world to view ................................................................................ 11Conclusion ............................................................................................................................................. 13Bibliography.......................................................................................................................................... 15Sociolinguistics Page 1 14-Mar-11
  2. 2. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009Whats in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet;Shakespeare - Romeo and JulietIf you talk to a man in a language he understands,that goes to his head.If you talk to him in his own language,that goes to his heart.Nelson MandelaIntroductionThe question of whether language shapes our view of the world has been debated overand pondered by great thinkers for centuries. Variously associated with the namesWilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, thetheory that our mother tongue affects the way we see the world, that our languageinfluences the way we think, has been defined using several names, such as thelinguistic relativity hypothesis, linguistic determinism, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis andthe Whorfian Hypothesis. Recent literature (Gumperz & Levinson 1994, Boroditsky2006) refers to the general theory as the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (LRH). Thishypothesis is split into „grades‟ of strength, the strongest often referred to asLinguistic Determinism. Sometimes, the weaker version is called Linguistic Relativity(Pinker 1994, Wardhaugh 2002, Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams 2007). In this essay Iwill refer to the strong form, that “the structure of a language determines the way inwhich speakers of that language view the world” (Wardhaugh 2002:221-222) aslinguistic determinism. The weaker form, that “the structure does not determine theSociolinguistics Page 2 14-Mar-11
  3. 3. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009world-view, but is still extremely influential in predisposing speakers of a languagetoward adopting a particular world-view.” (Ibid 2002:222) is referred to as the weakerform of linguistic relativity (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams 2007:26-27, Wardhaugh2002, Gumperz & Levinson 1996). I will consider evidence as to which of theseforms of the hypothesis are tenable. I am particularly interested here in thesociolinguistic implications and thus the wider context of English will feature in thediscussion. In particular, I wish to bring LRH into a contemporary setting and addressthe theory in light of the modern world, in which LRH would have huge implicationsif true.Humboldt is famous for putting forward the notion of every language havingweltanschauung or „world-view‟ ([1836] cited in Slobin 1996:70). This idea was alsoelaborated on by Boas, who stated that “[i]t has been claimed that the conciseness andclearness of thought of a people depend to a great extent upon their language” ([1911]1964:17) but those most famously associated with the theory in its strongest andweakest forms were Sapir and especially his student Whorf. It was Whorf who tookthe idea further and brought to it scientific observations and research that he had donewhile working with the native American Hopi tribe. This research has beenquestioned and widely discredited in academic circles, but the idea of LRH, thequestion of how thought and language are dependant on each other is certainly morerelevant today than ever, in a world of such overlapping global culture. In this essay,the contemporary setting for LRH will be a central feature. I will evaluate evidencefor and against LRH by seeing how adequately it presents a different world view forthe speakers of a given language, and in doing so show that this is a fatal flaw in thehypothesis.Sociolinguistics Page 3 14-Mar-11
  4. 4. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis – History and definitionA definition of thought, culture, language and ‘world-view’ ‘[T]he linguistic relativity principle’… means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers, but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world. Whorf ([1956] 1970:221)To understand LRH we must first understand what is meant by the terms thought,culture and language (Gumperz & Levinson 1996, Wardhaugh 2002). For thepurposes of this essay I will term thought as being the conceptual reference, which isentirely internal. For Humboldt and some of the subscribers to LRH, language andthought are inseparable (Slobin 1996),1 which I find a very loose thread in the theory.Thought and language are very distinct. Language is, to some extent, dependent onthought, but the two are not the same and we can have thought without language. Justimagine the most beautiful sunset you have ever seen and you can see the evidencefor this. Also, there are human emotions between jealousy and happiness for whichthere is no word in English. Imagine an ex-lover sending you a card announcing thatthey are to be married. Although this could be argued to be a feeling rather than athought, we would be aware of the feeling and be able to recognise it. Thus, it ispossible to think and feel beyond the semantic markings of our language. Pinker(1994:59) goes to great lengths to explain why language and thought are not the same,1 Despite Slobin (1996) attempting to re-brand these terms as “thinking for speaking” they are, inessence still reliant on the idea that thought and language are inseparable.Sociolinguistics Page 4 14-Mar-11
  5. 5. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009stating that thanks to leaps and bounds in cognitive science there is no question thatthe two are separate.Defining culture is problematic. If I define culture as simply referring to a nation orsocial group, its histories, traditions and idiosyncrasies, then we are not fullyencompassing the modern world with glocalization, familiarity and integrationbetween culture. In this definition, people from Australia and the USA would have adifferent culture, despite sharing a language, but people from India would all shareone culture despite their being some 4152 spoken languages. The Longman dictionaryof language teaching and applied linguistics defines culture as “the set of practices,codes and values that mark a particular nation or group.” (Richards & Schmidt 2002)This succinct definition will suffice for my purposes here, but the difficulty ofdefining culture is important to bear in mind when thinking about LRH because theworld is a different place from that of Whorf and Humboldt, and culture is no longerso clearly definable.I shall define language as any spoken and/or written form of communication usedwithin a given speech community. We will revisit this definition later when we lookat issues concerning the context of English use and globalization.World-view is perhaps the most difficult term to define as Whorf used „world-view‟in his posthumously published collected works ([1956] 1970) without offering any2 Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas,Tex.: SIL International. Online version: Page 5 14-Mar-11
  6. 6. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009further definition. The anthropologist Michael Kearney (1988)3 offered the mostcomprehensive for my purposes World View is a way of looking at reality, consisting of basic assumptions and images that provide a more or less coherent, though not necessarily accurate, way of thinking about the world Kearney (1988)A world-view, then, must be quite considerable in scope. It cannot be based on smallor minor differences, but on fundamental variations in a linguistic community‟sconception of the world. I will attempt to show that under such a definition LRHcollapses utterly, especially in the context of today‟s multicultural and highlycommunicative world.With our definitions in place, we can now look at the different forms of LRH andevaluate them with a modern perspective.The stronger form – Linguistic DeterminismThe strongest view of LRH, which I termed Linguistic Determinism, is frequentlyattributed to the following, very well known lines from Whorf, that “we dissect naturealong lines laid down by our native languages.” ([1956] 1970:213) For him, languageis the “shaper of ideas” (Ibid [1956] 1970:212) Thus, in its strongest form thehypothesis states that the way we think is a product of the language we speak. Thisstrong form has been linked with linguistic racism (Cameron 2003). The strong form3 Cited in course description for “World View” at Williamette University, which specialises in theliberal arts Page 6 14-Mar-11
  7. 7. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009could be used to suggest that certain languages, lacking words for certain concepts,are „primitive‟ or in some way inferior to others, and that the people who speak suchlanguages are beneath speakers of another „more advanced‟ language. In my viewlinguistic determinism is a glass-like theory, too easily seen through or shatteredaltogether. “This strong Whorfian view… has long been abandoned in the field [ofpsychology and language]” (Boroditsky 2001) One of the key „nails in the coffin‟ forlinguistic determinism was the work of Rosch (1975) on colour theory which foundthat the Dani, whose first language has only two words for defining colours, wereeasily able to learn English words and use them to differentiate between a set ofcolours in the way English speakers would.A common argument (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams 2007, Pinker 1994) against thestrongest view is that if we could only conceive of things for which the words alreadyexist in our language, we would not be able to coin new words, learn secondlanguages, or indeed be able to learn our own language. “If we could not think aboutsomething for which we do not have words, how would infants ever learn their firstword, much less a language?” (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams 2007:27). However,Gumperz and Levinson point out this is a common misreading of the hypothesis “itwas not intended to denote an exclusive causal vector in one direction - probably noproponent has held the view that what cannot be said cannot be thought.” (Gumperz& Levinson 1996:22). In this instance I have to agree that although Whorf states“formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense,but is part of a particular grammar” (Whorf, [1956] 1970:212) he does not appear tobe claiming that thought is not capable without language, but that language andSociolinguistics Page 7 14-Mar-11
  8. 8. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009thought become entwined and act as one. However, this is still problematic as I willattempt to show in the next section.The weaker form of Linguistic RelativityThe linguistic relativity hypothesis (LRH), or the weaker form of the hypothesis, isthe one to which most people who agree with the theory concur (Gumperz &Levinson 1996; Lucy 2000; Slobin 1996; Boroditsky 2001; Tohidian 2008). There arestill those who disagree with the weaker form (See Kay 1996; Pinker 1994; Pullum1991). Lucy (1997) mentioned a lack of research and evidence for linguistic relativity,but as Bohn (2000) points out there is, it seems a growing number of studies into therelationship between culture and language (Konishi 1993, Slobin 1996, Boroditsky2001). Much of this research is psychological or psycholinguistic in nature, so I willonly provide a brief summary here as my focus is on the sociolinguistic implicationsof the hypothesis.The most prominent areas of research have been into the grammatical structures oflanguages, such as English which is a non-classifier language and marks pluralitywith -S after regular countable nouns, against classifier languages such as Japanese.Japanese counting has an object-shape relationship. Studies showed a “language-specific bias” (Imai 2001:157) in the way children and adults perceived non-individuated substances, which emerges early in language development. However,upon looking at the results I find it hard to believe that this bias would affect the wayspeakers actually conceive of objects, or that they would do so differently. It hardlyseems surprising that we would categorise things externally when prompted to do soSociolinguistics Page 8 14-Mar-11
  9. 9. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009using words from our own language. I don‟t see how these results adequately reflect adifferent world view.Other grammar based research looked at gender marking and time construal. Somestudies found that speakers of Spanish and German have different connotativeassociations with gender marked nouns (Konishi 1993, Boroditsky 2006). Theresearcher claimed the associated adjectives were more feminine or masculinedepending on the gender marking of the noun. One obvious fallacy with thisconclusion is that adjectives do not carry gender, so it is subjective to label anadjective feminine or masculine. Gender is simply a linguistic term, and there can bemany “genders” – they do not specifically refer to male or female properties inlinguistics (Pinker 1994).The study done into time and spatial recognition (Boroditsky 1999 & Boroditsky2001) claims to find that because Mandarin conceptualises time vertically and Englishhorizontally, there is a difference in the speed of recognition when the arrangement isreverted for the speakers, in other words English speakers were less quick torecognise the chronology of events when they were presented in a vertical line. Also,the position of objects was recognised more quickly if displayed from right to left orleft to right, for English and Mandarin speakers respectively. This again, seems onlynatural as English speakers are more used to seeing time displayed horizontally. Ibelieve this can be explained by common, everyday familiarity and training ratherthan „world-view‟. Although this everyday familiarity is obviously a product oflinguistic conventions, it is clearly possible for the test subjects to conceptualise timein different ways and to recognise the conceptual cues.Sociolinguistics Page 9 14-Mar-11
  10. 10. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009Bohn goes so far as to state that, from the perspective of a speech scientist, “linguisticrelativity is not a hypothesis, it‟s a fact.” (Bohn 2000:1) The evidence he cites for thisclaim is that of perceptual patterns in phonological recognition, which apparentlyshow “dramatic and profound changes in the perceptual patterns [which] make infantslanguage-specific perceivers” (ibid: 9). However, as Bohn points out, not all studiesare conclusive on this4 and it is possible for speakers to „learn‟ to perceive andproduce phonemes outside their L1. I would go further than this and state that it doesnot always require training to recognise sounds beyond one‟s own linguisticrepertoire. I was perfectly able to hear the difference between our /dz/ and the Czech/ Ɉ/ even though I was unable to produce it without training and I had never previouslybeen exposed to the sound. Similarly, I have encountered many Japanese and Koreanlearners who have successfully learned to produce /l/ and /r/. Even though Bohn‟sresearch seems valid, the connotations ultimately do not affect semantic ranges,although they could have implications for ELT, especially with young learners in anEFL context outside of the target language culture because pronunciation is integral tocomprehending spoken language. Such findings are important, particularly within afield like ELF, but once again do not constitute a different world view.As Lucy (1997), Wardhaugh (2002) and Cameron (2003) point out, there is still notenough evidence to fully arrive at a definite conclusion because, although there isevidence of a cross-culture-linguistic disparity, it seems to me that the differences arenot conducive to a different way of perceiving and conceptualising the world and theydo not as such „predispose‟ us to adopt a particular „world-view‟. LRH is still an4 Studies by Polka & Bohn 1996 showed “no discrimination” between English and German speakers.(Bohn 2000:9)Sociolinguistics Page 10 14-Mar-11
  11. 11. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009interesting point, but let us now further examine it within the wider context ofcontemporary society.Times have changed – a different world to viewIn the introduction to this paper I stated that I would return to the definition oflanguage, thought and culture. When Humboldt (1767–1835), Boas (1858–1942)Sapir (1884–1939) and even Whorf (1897–1941) were writing they probably couldnever have envisaged the world of today. We truly live in a transformed world tothose scholars. In their world, large passenger planes like the Airbus A380-800 were along way away, Neil Armstrong was unheard of, a Blackberry would certainly not bea device with which one could communicate by way of video conference with acolleague on the other side of the world.The majority of the developed world live in constant awareness of other cultures andlanguages. The reality TV show Big Brother has been replicated and broadcast inalmost seventy countries. I first became interested in Japanese culture when I watchedManga on British television at the age of seven. My nine year old niece knows allabout Sikhism, Buddhism and even Taoism from her primary school education. Thetitle of Whorf‟s essay A Linguistic Consideration of Thinking in PrimitiveCommunities (1956) would be unlikely to get published today under such a titlebecause it would probably be deemed politically incorrect to talk of primitivecommunities (Howell 2004). We live in a world where culture and language overlapsignificantly, and as I stated at the beginning of this essay, culture is hard to define.Sociolinguistics Page 11 14-Mar-11
  12. 12. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009As Whorf and Humboldt relied so heavily on the idea of weltanschauung or „world-view,‟ this has been a central feature when I have analysed the evidence for LRH. Theidea of a different world view is fraught with complications, particularly in terms ofdefinition.‘World view’ has served anthropology as a term for the philosophical dimensions of ‘cultures’ seen as having a degree of coherence in time and space. Today, with our confidence in the coherence,integration, and political innocence of cultures long lost, a term from the high-water mark of bourgeois German ideology must be problematic. (Hill & Mannheim 1992:381)In using such a broad term, we see that LRH is not tenable because the small detailsof linguistic variation, such as gender marking or noun classification in my opinion donot adequately provide us with a reason to believe a given person or culture possess asignificantly different „world view.‟I believe that under the current definition of LRH, it is not tenable. There is notenough evidence to suggest that speakers of different languages have different viewsof the world. Some re-working of the theory would be necessary for it to remainplausible. Atomic levels of semantic representation may exist across languages, apenguin is a penguin whether the perceiver is from Australia or Antarctica. However,at a molecular level there may be differences in semantic structure.Gumperz and Levinson state that if one subscribes “to the distinctions betweenmolecular and atomic levels of semantic representation [the two] diametricallyopposed [opinions about LRH] are entirely compatible” (Gumperz & Levinson1996:25). This is, then, a restatement of LRH which leaves out „world-view‟ andattempts to bring both the universalist perspective and the core linguistic differencesof LRH together. Thus they are able to “find the original idea of linguistic relativitySociolinguistics Page 12 14-Mar-11
  13. 13. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009still alive, but functioning in a way that is different from how it was originallyconceived.” (Ibid, 1996:2). Although very diplomatic, this idea still needs to befurther expanded for me to fully subscribe to a new theory of LRH because it is notyet explicitly defined.ConclusionThus it would seem that the obstacles to generalized thought inherent in the form of a language are of minor importance only, and that presumably the language alone would not prevent a people from advancing to more generalized forms of thinking if the general state of their culture should require expression of such thought. Boas ([1911]1964:19)Research findings in some respects, can be subjective. The evidence is there, but theextent to which it contributes a „world view‟ is very much a choice we make based onhow much we want to agree or disagree with the theory. For Pinker, LRH exists on a“collective suspension of disbelief” (Pinker, 1994:58) and I must agree with this view,since LRH seems to make extremely strong statements about „world-view‟ based onvery small evidence. Boroditsky (2006) argues that this small evidence collectivelyamounts to something huge, but again this is only at the molecular level. For me,molecules are small, almost invisible components only viewed by powerfulmicroscopes.Also, let us not forget that differences in „world-view‟ may not be language specific.Consider the „world-view‟ of two native English speaking Americans, Elizabeth AnnSociolinguistics Page 13 14-Mar-11
  14. 14. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009Seton5 and Paris Hilton. “A culture does not provide its holders with a unified theoryof the world – a “world view” any more than a language does” Kay (1996:110).If the theory, even in its weakest form, is true then the significance would probably bequite large. I can see why, for a sociolinguist interested in cross-cultural issues such asJohn Gumperz (see for example Gumperz, 1977, 1982) the idea of LRH is interestingand relevant because he has studied cross-cultural misunderstandings andcommunicational breakdowns. I think we need to shift LRH away from Whorf andHumboldt, away from world view and back down into individual, molecular levels ofmeaning. LRH might find more subscribers if it was used to aid cross-culturalunderstanding rather than as a theory for global cross-linguistic incompatibility. (3,462 Words)5 The first woman to be ordained a Catholic SaintSociolinguistics Page 14 14-Mar-11
  15. 15. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009BibliographyBoas, Franz (1911) Linguistics and Ethnology Gumperz, J (1982) Language and Socialin Hymes (ed) Language in culture and Identity; Cambridge University Presssociety; a reader in linguistics andanthropology 1964, Harper and Row Hadley, G. (1997) Lexis and Culture: BoundPublishers, New York and Determined? Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. Vol. 26. No. 4Bohn, Ocke-Schwen (2000) Linguisticrelativity in speech perception; An overview of Hill, J H & Mannheim, B (1992) Languagethe influence of language experience on the and World View Annual Review ofperception of speech sounds from infancy to Anthropology, Vol. 21: 381-404adulthood in Niemeier, Susanne & Dirven,é (eds) 2000 Evidence for linguistic 1146/ Howell Llewellyn D. March (2004)Boroditsky, Lera (1999) Metaphoric "Perpetuating primitive politics". USA Todaystructuring: understanding time through spatial (Society for the Advancement of Education).metaphors 04 Apr, 2009.Cognition 75 (2000) 1-28 2706_132/ai_114740984/Boroditsky, Lera (2001) Does language shape Imai, Mutsumi (2000) Universal ontologicalthought? Mandarin and English speakers knowledge and a bias toward language-specificconceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology categories in the construal of individuation in43(1): 1-22. Niemeier, Susanne & Dirven, René (eds) 2000 Evidence for linguistic relativityBoroditsky, Lera (2006) Linguistic RelativityIntermediate Article Massachusetts Institute of Kay, Paul (1996) Intra-speaker relativity inTechnology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA Gumperz J and Levinson S (eds) (1996)2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Cameron, Deborah (2003) Linguisticrelativity: Benjamin Lee Whorf and the return Kearney, Michael (1988) World View.of the repressed Critical Quarterly, vol. 41, no. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp.2 Konishi, T.(1993) The semantics ofFromkin, V. Rodman, R. & Hyames, N. grammatical gender: A cross-cultural study(2001). An introduction to Language 8th Ed:, Journal of Psycholinguistic Research VolumeBoston: Thomson Wadsworth 22, Number 5 / September, 1993 Pages 519- 534Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), (2005).Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Lucy, John (1997) Linguistic Relativityedition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online Annual review of Anthropology 26: 291-312version: Pinker, Steven (1994) The Language Instinct;?name=IN New science of language and mind, Penguin Books, LondonGumperz J and Levinson S (eds) (1996)Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge, Polka, Linda & Bohn, Ocke-Schwen (1996) AUK: Cambridge University Press. cross-language comparison of vowel perception in English-learning and GermanGumperz, J (1977) Sociocultural knowledge in learning infants, Journal of the Acousticalconversational inference, in Jaworski, A & Society of America 100: 577-592Coupland N(eds) 1999 The Discourse Reader;Routledge Pullum, Geoff (1991) The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, Chicago University Press, ChicagoSociolinguistics Page 15 14-Mar-11
  16. 16. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 07/08/2009Richards, J.C. & Schmidt, R. (2002)Dictionary of Language Teaching and AppliedLinguistics (3rd Edition) Longman; HarlowRosch, E. (1975). Cognitive representations ofsemantic categories. Journal of ExperimentalPsychology: General, 104, 192–233.Slobin, Dan (1996) in From "thought andlanguage" to "thinking for speaking" inGumperz J and Levinson S (eds) (1996)Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge,UK: Cambridge University Press.Tohidian, Iman (2008) Examining LinguisticRelativity Hypothesis as One of the MainViews on the Relationship Between Languageand Thought Journal of PsycholinguisticResearch 2009 38:65–74 DOI10.1007/s10936-008-9083-1Wardhaugh, Ronald (2002) An introduction toSociolinguistics (5th Edition) BlackwellPublishing, OxfordWhorf, B. L. (1956) Language, thought andreality: selected writings of BenjaminLee Whorf 5th Edition 1970 J . B. Carroll (ed).Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Whorf, Benjamin (1956) A LinguisticConsideration of Thinking in PrimitiveCommunities in Language, thought andreality: selected writings of Benjamin LeeWhorf 5th Edition 1970 J . B. Carroll. (ed)Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Wierzbicka, Anna (1997) UnderstandingCultures through Their Key Words; English,Russian, Polish, German, and Japanese; NewYork Oxford, Oxford University PressSociolinguistics Page 16 14-Mar-11
  17. 17. Richard S Pinner RPinner Sociolinguistics - Linguistic Relativity.docx 20/11/2008Richard Pinner Page 17Originally submitted to King‟s College London as part of an MA in Applied Linguistics and ELT