Contrastive Rhetorics and World Englishes

Contrastive Rhetorics and World Englishes

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-450-5.ch003
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This chapter provides the linguistic base to intercultural rhetorical research, exploring theories of linguistic relativity and contrastive rhetoric. It contextualizes much of this work into a broader social and cultural framework, showing how intercultural rhetorical patterns are not solely based on language, but also on other values, such as the eight common human thresholds of interaction. It also hypothesizes about the cultural and rhetorical relevance of English as a world language
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Theory Of Linguistic Relativity And Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

An important line of inquiry for professional communicators working across cultures is the connection between the native language and corresponding rhetorical and cultural patterns. Known as the theory of linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this theory examines how the differences in the ways languages encode cultural, rhetorical, and cognitive categories influence the way people speak, write, and reason. In 1956, Benjamin Whorf describes the theory this way:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language [...] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated (pp.134-5).

Eventually, Whorf and others embraced two versions of the hypothesis: The strong version maintains that one's native language determines thought and linguistic categories, while the weak version simply argues that a language encourages certain usage and perceptions. In other words, a speaker's native language is much like a computer’s operating system, influencing what is inputted, what and how something is processed, and the output. Even though Sapir and Whorf reinvigorated the discussion in the 1940s through the 1960s, this connection between language and the brain has been strongly debated for more than 200 years or perhaps even as far back as St. Augustine or the Sophists.

Most early 20th century research in linguistic relativity examined the correlation between the availability of words in a certain language and how speakers of that language perceived color or time, with corresponding argument that if a speaker of the language did not have a word for it specific color, that speaker would not recognize (strong version) or leave in the background (weak version) the recognition of the color. For example, if we view the light spectrum as in Figure 1, we note that there are no clear separations of colors in the spectrum:

Figure 1.

Light spectrum


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