Hudson’s Sociolinguistic: Linguistic and cultural relativity

Semantic relativity

He discusses how far meanings may differ from variety to variety (concidering cultural relativism) and whether there are any connections between differences in meaning and differences in culture. Determinism is concerned with the influence of language on thought. With relativity, he points out that one language may refer to an item in a different way to others. This makes it difficult to translate between languages from different cultures. For instance, some English words like chair, jug and carpet are not translatable to French in the sense that no single French word expresses exactly the same concept as the corresponding English word.


Meanings are examined according to a prototype. That means that there are fewer differences between languages if one concentrates on prototypes. A word in a language may not share the same meaning with another word in a different language.

For instance, in Seminole Indians of Oklahoma and Florida and the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, the same term may be used to refer to the following relations: father, father’s brother, father’s sister, father’s mother’s sister’s son, father’s sister’s daughter’s son. Looking at this with concentration on prototype, the major feature shared is that of father and male.

Basic-level concepts

This is concerned with working out the easier ways to relate meanings with items that are provided through prototype. For instance, it is more informative to say I bought a chair than to say ‘I bought a piece of furniture.’ It could further be specified by saying ‘kitchen chair’ but this specification is of less significance. Chair is therefore a basic concept.

Language and socialization


Language is used by an older generation to transmit its culture to a younger one. This shows the relationship between language and thought. Language is an instrument of socialisation.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Sapir and Whorf are recognized in the study of American Indian languages. Whorf points out that our thinking is affected by the grammar of our language. Grammar involves conceptual distinctions that are very general which people use very frequently. He claims that conceptual distinctions affect the way in which speakers understand there experience at all times, whether or not they are using the language.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been for over fifty years but it has been questioned because the hypothesis is hard to test and neither Sapir nor Whorf can take the full credit of its formulation. It claims that a person’s grammar is the only thing that affects the person’s thinking. This is referred to as linguistic determinism. It is agreed that people formed some concept without any help from language. Hill (1988) adds that the view of linguistic determinism may be described as “largely discredited”. It may be believed that different languages are different codes for expressing the same range of meanings. So language cannot influence thought differently. Discrediting the hypothesis, compare English and Navajo. In Navajo, verbs always take the shape of the items they address, the object which may be long or flat. This is not so in English. How does that influence ones behaviour other than only choosing the right verb to use for an object?

On the other hand, the “trial sorting task” is used to test the similarity in the people’s thought. The subject are shown to the objects and are asked to group a third object with one of them on the bases of similarity, the similarity may be in size, shape or colour.

The Navajo speakers pay attention to shape so it may help them from childhood to develop ability to differentiate objects based on shape; this suggests that the language influences the children’s non-verbal behaviour, so it may well be said that grammar may influence thought. But a general test showed that children from English speaking environments also showed knowledge of shape like the Navajo children. The conclusion is that grammar is only one of several things that affect thought.

Sexism in the language system

This refers to the view of the place of women in the society. It also asks the question whether the attitude toward women is influenced by the language used many years ago when women did not have equal right with men. Do languages discriminate against women? Examine the use of Miss and Mrs. as words to show whether or not a woman is married showing that it is very important to display the marital status of a woman. In some cases, female words tend to have less favorable meanings than men – master is used for men while mistress (partner for extramarital sex) is used for women. It shows some bias to refer to a male doctor simply as doctor but a female as female doctor.

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