Saturday, October 4, 2008

Linguistic Relativity and Culture Contact Among the Native Americans of California

Cultural Contact and Linguistic Relativity Among the Indians of Northwestern California

Sean O’Neill


University of Oklahoma Press

One of the most perplexing problems in the field of anthropology over the last hundred years has been the relationship between language and culture. Does language shape culture? Does culture shape language? Further, and perhaps more interesting, does language shape our cognition, effecting the very way that we see the world? Similarly, does culture shape our language in such a way that the very words, concepts, and semantic structures within a language are the direct result of the culture’s physical manifestation? These questions and many others have been the subject of debate within anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and other fields of inquiry for well over a century. Out of this interdisciplinary debate, however, one theory has been of particular interest to all parties – the theory of linguistic relativity.

Cultural Contact Linguistic Relativity Indians California
Developed primarily by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf (Sapir 1949; Whorf 1956), linguistic relativity originally focused on controlled comparisons between contrasting linguistic traditions and related patterns of behavior in a culture, often with an emphasis on the historical impact of cultural categories on the evolution of language. The reason that the theory has been the subject of debate for so long, however, is because of the lack of good, solid evidence to support it. Although anthropologists, indigenous scholars, and a few psychologists have long recognized the deep interconnection between language, culture, and cosmology, in-depth studies of indigenous languages and their grammatical and semantic differences has been lacking. Likewise, comparisons of different indigenous languages across similar cultural patterns has been hard to achieve. Contributing to the debate, and adding much needed data and evidence, is the recent book by Sean O’Neill: Cultural Contact and Linguistic Relativity Among the Indians of Northwestern California.

Approaching the principle of linguistic relativity via the works of Boas (1896/1948), Sapir (1949), and Whorf (1956), who all argued for the role of language in guiding human perception, especially in the culturally charged settings of everyday life, O’Neill’s book is a data-rich, theoretically expanding contribution.

Read the rest of the review here: Cultural Contact and Linguistic Relativity Among the Indians of Northwestern California.

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