Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

How Language Shapes our Attitudes and Treatment of Non-Human Animals

How Language Shapes our Attitudes and Treatment of Non-Human Animals
Elizabeth Guglielmotti

The linguistic relativity hypothesis claims that the structure and content of language significantly affects the way speakers of that language think, classify, and experience the world. Governments, education systems, popular culture, and religions are major influences which affect how humans view and treat non-human animals. Within these sectors, language is a fundamental tool for conveying desired messages. How important is language in regards to the relationship between humans and non-human animals? Do personal values influence language use when speaking about non-human animals, or, is it that language influences personal values, or both? This paper investigates these questions using the linguistic relativity hypothesis proposed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf.

The reviewed literature on human-animal relations and the role of language presented in this paper has been taken from the journal of Society and Animals. Through this literature review, the consensus found is that language use is the most influential factor contributing to the social construction of non-human animals. This point is important because the way society views non-human animals directly affects how they are treated. Language used to speak about the animal world is significantly and directly influencing the way people place themselves into the environment and establishes their role and responsibilities in their surroundings. If language plays such a significant role in developing society’s attitudes about animals, then I would ask why animal advocacy organizations don’t move away from presenting themselves to society as self-righteous through dramatized spectacles, which only further segregates people into caring about animal issues. More focus and money should be targeted at the institutions which are presenting animals in a certain way through language.

April 17, 2009 - Posted by | abstract


  1. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is almost entirely discredited. It is of course possible to examine the role that chance changes, or deliberate manipulation of language, especially lexis, can have in the changing of perceptions, but I would suggest that it needs to start with analysis of specific cases and built any general theory with extreme care. Using any of the ideas of Sapir and Whorf to jsutify that theoretical framework is probably a bad idea.

    Comment by CIngram | April 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. CIngram, this is not entirely true. There is a swing back towards a compromise set of theories that incorporate both the ideas of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the cognitivists into a middle ground analysis. Take a look at recent offerings in Neo-Whorfian paradigms and analyses of spatial conceptualizations, memory tests, and temporal references.

    Comment by Denice Szafran | April 18, 2009 | Reply

  3. I am very interested in studies examining linguistic relativity and the manipulation of language. However I have to wonder about how the question you pose at the end of your abstract – about why animal rights groups don’t take advantage of the potential power of language to support their work – connects to this research. I think that might be better connect to research about how the power of language is *perceived*? I think also that they may be trying to cash in on a specific linguistic capital by framing their cause in emotional terms.

    I don’t know if I’m saying that as clearly as I could, so I’ll try and simplify – I don’t know if the issue of why animal rights activists present themselves in a certain way can be directly connected to how anthropologists think about the power of language to shape and structure society, but I am interested to hear why you might!

    Comment by Elanya | April 19, 2009 | Reply

  4. I have to agree that the strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis is pretty much universally discredited. But there are those who go along with a range of milder versions.

    However, I think the way the hypothesis is framed here (‘structure and content of language significantly affects…’) allows it to be trivially true as being able to change someone’s thinking by lying to them would fit with this. The actual hypothesis, in its strong form, is that the *categories* in *a* language determine thought (replace ‘determine’ with ‘influence’ for weaker versions). So unless you’re saying that the morphosyntactic categories of English influence how speakers perceive the treatment of non-human animals, it seems to me from your abstract that what you’re talking about isn’t linguistic relativity but rather framing and persuasion, and you should be looking at work by (eg) Lakoff on this.

    Comment by gaston umlaut | April 23, 2009 | Reply

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