Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis)
Mia Belle Frothingham
B.A., Sciences and Psychology
Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard University graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Sciences with minors in biology and psychology
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There are about seven thousand languages heard around the world – they all have different sounds, vocabularies, and structures. As you know, language plays a significant role in our lives.
But one intriguing question is – can it actually affect how we think?
It is widely thought that reality and how one perceives the world is expressed in spoken words and are precisely the same as reality.
That is, perception and expression are understood to be synonymous, and it is assumed that speech is based on thoughts. This idea believes that what one says depends on how the world is encoded and decoded in the mind.
However, many believe the opposite.
In that, what one perceives is dependent on the spoken word. Basically, that thought depends on language, not the other way around.
What Is The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?
Twentieth-century linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf are known for this very principle and its popularization. Their joint theory, known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or, more commonly, the Theory of Linguistic Relativity, holds great significance in all scopes of communication theories.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the grammatical and verbal structure of a person’s language influences how they perceive the world. It emphasizes that language either determines or influences one’s thoughts.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that people experience the world based on the structure of their language, and that linguistic categories shape and limit cognitive processes. It proposes that differences in language affect thought, perception, and behavior, so speakers of different languages think and act differently.
For example, different words mean various things in other languages. Not every word in all languages has an exact one-to-one translation in a foreign language.
Because of these small but crucial differences, using the wrong word within a particular language can have significant consequences.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is sometimes called “linguistic relativity” or the “principle of linguistic relativity.” So while they have slightly different names, they refer to the same basic proposal about the relationship between language and thought.
How Language Influences Culture
Culture is defined by the values, norms, and beliefs of a society. Our culture can be considered a lens through which we undergo the world and develop a shared meaning of what occurs around us.
The language that we create and use is in response to the cultural and societal needs that arose. In other words, there is an apparent relationship between how we talk and how we perceive the world.
One crucial question that many intellectuals have asked is how our society’s language influences its culture.
Linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his then-student Benjamin Whorf were interested in answering this question.
Together, they created the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that our thought processes predominantly determine how we look at the world.
Our language restricts our thought processes – our language shapes our reality. Simply, the language that we use shapes the way we think and how we see the world.
Since the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis theorizes that our language use shapes our perspective of the world, people who speak different languages have different views of the world.
In the 1920s, Benjamin Whorf was a Yale University graduate student studying with linguist Edward Sapir, who was considered the father of American linguistic anthropology.
Sapir was responsible for documenting and recording the cultures and languages of many Native American tribes disappearing at an alarming rate. He and his predecessors were well aware of the close relationship between language and culture.
Anthropologists like Sapir need to learn the language of the culture they are studying to understand the worldview of its speakers truly. Whorf believed that the opposite is also true, that language affects culture by influencing how its speakers think.
His hypothesis proposed that the words and structures of a language influence how its speaker behaves and feels about the world and, ultimately, the culture itself.
Simply put, Whorf believed that you see the world differently from another person who speaks another language due to the specific language you speak.
Human beings do not live in the matter-of-fact world alone, nor solitary in the world of social action as traditionally understood, but are very much at the pardon of the certain language which has become the medium of communication and expression for their society.
To a large extent, the real world is unconsciously built on habits in regard to the language of the group. We hear and see and otherwise experience broadly as we do because the language habits of our community predispose choices of interpretation.
Studies & Examples
The lexicon, or vocabulary, is the inventory of the articles a culture speaks about and has classified to understand the world around them and deal with it effectively.
For example, our modern life is dictated for many by the need to travel by some vehicle – cars, buses, trucks, SUVs, trains, etc. We, therefore, have thousands of words to talk about and mention, including types of models, vehicles, parts, or brands.
The most influential aspects of each culture are similarly reflected in the dictionary of its language. Among the societies living on the islands in the Pacific, fish have significant economic and cultural importance.
Therefore, this is reflected in the rich vocabulary that describes all aspects of the fish and the environments that islanders depend on for survival.
For example, there are over 1,000 fish species in Palau, and Palauan fishers knew, even long before biologists existed, details about the anatomy, behavior, growth patterns, and habitat of most of them – far more than modern biologists know today.
Whorf’s studies at Yale involved working with many Native American languages, including Hopi. He discovered that the Hopi language is quite different from English in many ways, especially regarding time.
Western cultures and languages view times as a flowing river that carries us continuously through the present, away from the past, and to the future.
Our grammar and system of verbs reflect this concept with particular tenses for past, present, and future.
We perceive this concept of time as universal in that all humans see it in the same way.
Although a speaker of Hopi has very different ideas, their language’s structure both reflects and shapes the way they think about time. Seemingly, the Hopi language has no present, past, or future tense; instead, they divide the world into manifested and unmanifest domains.
The manifested domain consists of the physical universe, including the present, the immediate past, and the future; the unmanifest domain consists of the remote past and the future and the world of dreams, thoughts, desires, and life forces.
Also, there are no words for minutes, minutes, or days of the week. Native Hopi speakers often had great difficulty adapting to life in the English-speaking world when it came to being on time for their job or other affairs.
It is due to the simple fact that this was not how they had been conditioned to behave concerning time in their Hopi world, which followed the phases of the moon and the movements of the sun.
Today, it is widely believed that some aspects of perception are affected by language.
One big problem with the original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis derives from the idea that if a person’s language has no word for a specific concept, then that person would not understand that concept.
Honestly, the idea that a mother tongue can restrict one’s understanding has been largely unaccepted. For example, in German, there is a term that means to take pleasure in another person’s unhappiness.
While there is no translatable equivalent in English, it just would not be accurate to say that English speakers have never experienced or would not be able to comprehend this emotion.
Just because there is no word for this in the English language does not mean English speakers are less equipped to feel or experience the meaning of the word.
Not to mention a “chicken and egg” problem with the theory.
Of course, languages are human creations, very much tools we invented and honed to suit our needs. Merely showing that speakers of diverse languages think differently does not tell us whether it is the language that shapes belief or the other way around.
On the other hand, there is hard evidence that the language-associated habits we acquire play a role in how we view the world. And indeed, this is especially true for languages that attach genders to inanimate objects.
There was a study done that looked at how German and Spanish speakers view different things based on their given gender association in each respective language.
The results demonstrated that in describing things that are referred to as masculine in Spanish, speakers of the language marked them as having more male characteristics like “strong” and “long.” Similarly, these same items, which use feminine phrasings in German, were noted by German speakers as effeminate, like “beautiful” and “elegant.”
The findings imply that speakers of each language have developed preconceived notions of something being feminine or masculine, not due to the objects” characteristics or appearances but because of how they are categorized in their native language.
It is important to remember that the Theory of Linguistic Relativity (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) also successfully achieves openness. The theory is shown as a window where we view the cognitive process, not as an absolute.
It is set forth to look at a phenomenon differently than one usually would. Furthermore, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is very simple and logically sound. Understandably, one’s atmosphere and culture will affect decoding.
Likewise, in studies done by the authors of the theory, many Native American tribes do not have a word for particular things because they do not exist in their lives. The logical simplism of this idea of relativism provides parsimony.
Truly, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis makes sense. It can be utilized in describing great numerous misunderstandings in everyday life. When a Pennsylvanian says “yuns,” it does not make any sense to a Californian, but when examined, it is just another word for “you all.”
The Linguistic Relativity Theory addresses this and suggests that it is all relative. This concept of relativity passes outside dialect boundaries and delves into the world of language – from different countries and, consequently, from mind to mind.
Is language reality honestly because of thought, or is it thought which occurs because of language? The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis very transparently presents a view of reality being expressed in language and thus forming in thought.
The principles rehashed in it show a reasonable and even simple idea of how one perceives the world, but the question is still arguable: thought then language or language then thought?
Regardless of its age, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or the Linguistic Relativity Theory, has continued to force itself into linguistic conversations, even including pop culture.
The idea was just recently revisited in the movie “Arrival,” – a science fiction film that engagingly explores the ways in which an alien language can affect and alter human thinking.
And even if some of the most drastic claims of the theory have been debunked or argued against, the idea has continued its relevance, and that does say something about its importance.
Hypotheses, thoughts, and intellectual musings do not need to be totally accurate to remain in the public eye as long as they make us think and question the world – and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis does precisely that.
The theory does not only make us question linguistic theory and our own language but also our very existence and how our perceptions might shape what exists in this world.
There are generalities that we can expect every person to encounter in their day-to-day life – in relationships, love, work, sadness, and so on. But thinking about the more granular disparities experienced by those in diverse circumstances, linguistic or otherwise, helps us realize that there is more to the story than ours.
And beautifully, at the same time, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis reiterates the fact that we are more alike than we are different, regardless of the language we speak.
Isn’t it just amazing that linguistic diversity just reveals to us how ingenious and flexible the human mind is – human minds have invented not one cognitive universe but, indeed, seven thousand!
Kay, P., & Kempton, W. (1984). What is the Sapir‐Whorf hypothesis?. American anthropologist, 86(1), 65-79.
Whorf, B. L. (1952). Language, mind, and reality. ETC: A review of general semantics, 167-188.
Whorf, B. L. (1997). The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language. In Sociolinguistics (pp. 443-463). Palgrave, London.
Whorf, B. L. (2012). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT press.
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The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: How Language Influences How We Express Ourselves
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.
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What to Know About the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Real-world examples of linguistic relativity, linguistic relativity in psychology.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity, refers to the idea that the language a person speaks can influence their worldview, thought, and even how they experience and understand the world.
While more extreme versions of the hypothesis have largely been discredited, a growing body of research has demonstrated that language can meaningfully shape how we understand the world around us and even ourselves.
Keep reading to learn more about linguistic relativity, including some real-world examples of how it shapes thoughts, emotions, and behavior.
The hypothesis is named after anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf. While the hypothesis is named after them both, the two never actually formally co-authored a coherent hypothesis together.
This Hypothesis Aims to Figure Out How Language and Culture Are Connected
Sapir was interested in charting the difference in language and cultural worldviews, including how language and culture influence each other. Whorf took this work on how language and culture shape each other a step further to explore how different languages might shape thought and behavior.
Since then, the concept has evolved into multiple variations, some more credible than others.
Linguistic Determinism Is an Extreme Version of the Hypothesis
Linguistic determinism, for example, is a more extreme version suggesting that a person’s perception and thought are limited to the language they speak. An early example of linguistic determinism comes from Whorf himself who argued that the Hopi people in Arizona don’t conjugate verbs into past, present, and future tenses as English speakers do and that their words for units of time (like “day” or “hour”) were verbs rather than nouns.
From this, he concluded that the Hopi don’t view time as a physical object that can be counted out in minutes and hours the way English speakers do. Instead, Whorf argued, the Hopi view time as a formless process.
This was then taken by others to mean that the Hopi don’t have any concept of time—an extreme view that has since been repeatedly disproven.
There is some evidence for a more nuanced version of linguistic relativity, which suggests that the structure and vocabulary of the language you speak can influence how you understand the world around you. To understand this better, it helps to look at real-world examples of the effects language can have on thought and behavior.
Different Languages Express Colors Differently
Color is one of the most common examples of linguistic relativity. Most known languages have somewhere between two and twelve color terms, and the way colors are categorized varies widely. In English, for example, there are distinct categories for blue and green .
Blue and Green
But in Korean, there is one word that encompasses both. This doesn’t mean Korean speakers can’t see blue, it just means blue is understood as a variant of green rather than a distinct color category all its own.
In Russian, meanwhile, the colors that English speakers would lump under the umbrella term of “blue” are further subdivided into two distinct color categories, “siniy” and “goluboy.” They roughly correspond to light blue and dark blue in English. But to Russian speakers, they are as distinct as orange and brown .
In one study comparing English and Russian speakers, participants were shown a color square and then asked to choose which of the two color squares below it was the closest in shade to the first square.
The test specifically focused on varying shades of blue ranging from “siniy” to “goluboy.” Russian speakers were not only faster at selecting the matching color square but were more accurate in their selections.
The Way Location Is Expressed Varies Across Languages
This same variation occurs in other areas of language. For example, in Guugu Ymithirr, a language spoken by Aboriginal Australians, spatial orientation is always described in absolute terms of cardinal directions. While an English speaker would say the laptop is “in front of” you, a Guugu Ymithirr speaker would say it was north, south, west, or east of you.
As a result, Aboriginal Australians have to be constantly attuned to cardinal directions because their language requires it (just as Russian speakers develop a more instinctive ability to discern between shades of what English speakers call blue because their language requires it).
So when you ask a Guugu Ymithirr speaker to tell you which way south is, they can point in the right direction without a moment’s hesitation. Meanwhile, most English speakers would struggle to accurately identify South without the help of a compass or taking a moment to recall grade school lessons about how to find it.
The concept of these cardinal directions exists in English, but English speakers aren’t required to think about or use them on a daily basis so it’s not as intuitive or ingrained in how they orient themselves in space.
Just as with other aspects of thought and perception, the vocabulary and grammatical structure we have for thinking about or talking about what we feel doesn’t create our feelings, but it does shape how we understand them and, to an extent, how we experience them.
Words Help Us Put a Name to Our Emotions
For example, the ability to detect displeasure from a person’s face is universal. But in a language that has the words “angry” and “sad,” you can further distinguish what kind of displeasure you observe in their facial expression. This doesn’t mean humans never experienced anger or sadness before words for them emerged. But they may have struggled to understand or explain the subtle differences between different dimensions of displeasure.
In one study of English speakers, toddlers were shown a picture of a person with an angry facial expression. Then, they were given a set of pictures of people displaying different expressions including happy, sad, surprised, scared, disgusted, or angry. Researchers asked them to put all the pictures that matched the first angry face picture into a box.
The two-year-olds in the experiment tended to place all faces except happy faces into the box. But four-year-olds were more selective, often leaving out sad or fearful faces as well as happy faces. This suggests that as our vocabulary for talking about emotions expands, so does our ability to understand and distinguish those emotions.
But some research suggests the influence is not limited to just developing a wider vocabulary for categorizing emotions. Language may “also help constitute emotion by cohering sensations into specific perceptions of ‘anger,’ ‘disgust,’ ‘fear,’ etc.,” said Dr. Harold Hong, a board-certified psychiatrist at New Waters Recovery in North Carolina.
As our vocabulary for talking about emotions expands, so does our ability to understand and distinguish those emotions.
Words for emotions, like words for colors, are an attempt to categorize a spectrum of sensations into a handful of distinct categories. And, like color, there’s no objective or hard rule on where the boundaries between emotions should be which can lead to variation across languages in how emotions are categorized.
Emotions Are Categorized Differently in Different Languages
Just as different languages categorize color a little differently, researchers have also found differences in how emotions are categorized. In German, for example, there’s an emotion called “gemütlichkeit.”
While it’s usually translated as “cozy” or “ friendly ” in English, there really isn’t a direct translation. It refers to a particular kind of peace and sense of belonging that a person feels when surrounded by the people they love or feel connected to in a place they feel comfortable and free to be who they are.
Harold Hong, MD, Psychiatrist
The lack of a word for an emotion in a language does not mean that its speakers don't experience that emotion.
You may have felt gemütlichkeit when staying up with your friends to joke and play games at a sleepover. You may feel it when you visit home for the holidays and spend your time eating, laughing, and reminiscing with your family in the house you grew up in.
In Japanese, the word “amae” is just as difficult to translate into English. Usually, it’s translated as "spoiled child" or "presumed indulgence," as in making a request and assuming it will be indulged. But both of those have strong negative connotations in English and amae is a positive emotion .
Instead of being spoiled or coddled, it’s referring to that particular kind of trust and assurance that comes with being nurtured by someone and knowing that you can ask for what you want without worrying whether the other person might feel resentful or burdened by your request.
You might have felt amae when your car broke down and you immediately called your mom to pick you up, without having to worry for even a second whether or not she would drop everything to help you.
Regardless of which languages you speak, though, you’re capable of feeling both of these emotions. “The lack of a word for an emotion in a language does not mean that its speakers don't experience that emotion,” Dr. Hong explained.
What This Means For You
“While having the words to describe emotions can help us better understand and regulate them, it is possible to experience and express those emotions without specific labels for them.” Without the words for these feelings, you can still feel them but you just might not be able to identify them as readily or clearly as someone who does have those words.
Rhee S. Lexicalization patterns in color naming in Korean . In: Raffaelli I, Katunar D, Kerovec B, eds. Studies in Functional and Structural Linguistics. Vol 78. John Benjamins Publishing Company; 2019:109-128. Doi:10.1075/sfsl.78.06rhe
Winawer J, Witthoft N, Frank MC, Wu L, Wade AR, Boroditsky L. Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination . Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2007;104(19):7780-7785. 10.1073/pnas.0701644104
Lindquist KA, MacCormack JK, Shablack H. The role of language in emotion: predictions from psychological constructionism . Front Psychol. 2015;6. Doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00444
By Rachael Green Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Examples, Definition, Criticisms
Developed in 1929 by Edward Sapir, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (also known as linguistic relativity ) states that a person’s perception of the world around them and how they experience the world is both determined and influenced by the language that they speak.
The theory proposes that differences in grammatical and verbal structures, and the nuanced distinctions in the meanings that are assigned to words, create a unique reality for the speaker. We also call this idea the linguistic determinism theory .
Spair-Whorf Hypothesis Definition and Overview
Cibelli et al. (2016) reiterate the tenets of the hypothesis by stating:
“…our thoughts are shaped by our native language, and that speakers of different languages therefore think differently”(para. 1).
Kay & Kempton (1984) explain it a bit more succinctly. They explain that the hypothesis itself is based on the:
“…evolutionary view prevalent in 19 th century anthropology based in both linguistic relativity and determinism” (pp. 66, 79).
Linguist Edward Sapir, an American linguist who was interested in anthropology , studied at Yale University with Benjamin Whorf in the 1920’s.
Sapir & Whorf began to consider lexical and grammatical patterns and how these factored into the construction of different culture’s views of the world around them.
For example, they compared how thoughts and behavior differed between English speakers and Hopi language speakers in regard to the concept of time, arguing that in the Hopi language, the absence of the future tense has significant relevance (Kay & Kempton, 1984, p. 78-79).
Whorf (2021), in his own words, asserts:
“Every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness” (p. 252).
10 Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Examples
- Constructions of food in language: A language may ascribe many words to explain the same concept, item, or food type. This shows that they perceive it as extremely important in their society, in comparison to a culture whose language only has one word for that same concept, item, or food.
- Descriptions of color in language: Different cultures may visually perceive colors in different ways according to how the colors are described by the words in their language.
- Constructions of gender in language: Many languages are “gendered”, creating word associations that pertain to the roles of men or women in society.
- Perceptions of time in language: Depending upon how the tenses are structured in a language, it may dictate how the people that speak that language perceive the concept of time.
- Categorization in language: The ways concepts and items in a given culture are categorized (and what words are assigned to them) can affect the speaker’s perception of the world around them.
- Politeness is encoded in language: Levels of politeness in a language and the pronoun combinations to express these levels differ between languages. How languages express politeness with words can dictate how they perceive the world around them.
- Indigenous words for snow: A popular example used to justify this hypothesis is the Inuit people, who have a multitude of ways to express the word snow. If you follow the reasoning of Sapir, it would suggest that the Inuits have a profoundly deeper understanding of snow than other cultures.
- Use of idioms in language: An expression or well-known saying in one culture has an acute meaning implicitly understood by those that speak the particular language but is not understandable when expressed in another language.
- Values are engrained in language: Each country and culture have beliefs and values as a direct result of the language it uses.
- Slang in language: The slang used by younger people evolves from generation to generation in all languages. Generational slang carries with it perceptions and ideas about the world that members of that generation share.
See Other Hypothesis Examples Here
Two Ways Language Shapes Perception
1. perception of categories and categorization.
How concepts and items in a culture are categorized (and what words are assigned to them) can affect the speaker’s perception of the world around them.
Although the examples of this phenomenon are too numerous to cite, a clear example is the extremely contextual, nuanced, and hyper-categorized Japanese language.
In the English language, the concept of “you” and “I” is narrowed to these two forms. However, Japanese has numerous ways to express you and I, each having various levels of politeness and appropriateness in relation to age, gender, and stature in society.
While in common conversation, the pronoun is often left out of the conversation – reliant on context, misuse or omission of the proper pronoun can be perceived as rude or ill-mannered.
In other ways, the complexity of the categorical lexicons can often leave English speakers puzzled. This could come in the form of classifications of different shaped bowls and plates that serve different functions; it could be traces of the ancient Japanese calendar from the 7 th Century, that possessed 72 micro-seasons during a year, or any number of sub-divided word listings that may be considered as one blanket term in another language.
Masuda et al. (2017) gives a clear example:
“ People conceptualize objects along the lines drawn between existing categories in their native language. That is, if two concepts fall into the same linguistic category, the perception of similarity between these objects would be stronger than if the two concepts fall into different linguistic categories.”
They then go on to give the example of how Japanese vs English speakers might categorize an everyday object – the bell:
“For example, in Japanese, the kind of bell found in a bell tower generally corresponds to the word kane—a large bell—which is categorically different from a small bell, suzu. However, in English, these two objects are considered to belong within the same linguistic category, “bell.” Therefore, we might expect English speakers to perceive these two objects as being more similar than would Japanese speakers (para 5).
2. Perception of the Concept of Time
According to a way the tenses are structured in a language, it may dictate how the people that speak that language perceive the concept of time
One of Sapir’s most famous applications of his theory is to the language of the Arizona Native American Hopi tribe.
He claimed, although refuted vehemently by linguistic scholars since, that they have no general notion of time – that they cannot decipher between the past, present, or future because of the grammatical structures that are used within their language.
As Engle (2016) asserts, Sapir believed that the Hopi language “encodes on ordinal value, rather than a passage of time”.
He concluded that, “a day followed by a night is not so much a new day, but a return to daylight” (p. 96).
However, it is not only Hopi culture that has different perception of time imbedded in the language; Thai culture has a non-linear concept of time, and the Malagasy people of Madagascar believe that time in motion around human beings, not that human beings are passing through time (Engle, 2016, p. 99).
Criticism of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
1. language as context-dependent.
Iwamoto (2005) expresses that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis fails to recognize that language is used within context. Its purely decontextualized textual analysis of language is too one-dimensional and doesn’t consider how we actually use language:
“Whorf’s “neat and simplistic” linguistic relativism presupposes the idea that an entire language or entire societies or cultures are categorizable or typable in a straightforward, discrete, and total manner, ignoring other variables such as contextual and semantic factors .” (Iwamoto, 2005, p. 95)
2. Not universally applicable
Another criticism of the hypothesis is that Sapir & Whorf’s hypothesis cannot be transferred or applied to all languages.
It is difficult to cite empirical studies that confirm that other cultures do not also have similarities in the way concepts are perceived through their language – even if they don’t possess a similar word/expression for a particular concept that is expressed.
3. thoughts can be independent of language
Stephen Pinker, one of Sapir & Whorf’s most emphatic critics, would argue that language is not of our thoughts, and is not a cultural invention that creates perceptions; it is in his opinion, a part of human biology (Meier & Pinker, 1995, pp. 611-612).
He suggests that the acquisition and development of sign language show that languages are instinctual, therefore biological; he even goes so far as to say that “all speech is an illusion”(p. 613).
Cibelli, E., Xu, Y., Austerweil, J. L., Griffiths, T. L., & Regier, T. (2016). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Probabilistic Inference: Evidence from the Domain of Color. PLOS ONE , 11 (7), e0158725. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158725
Engle, J. S. (2016). Of Hopis and Heptapods: The Return of Sapir-Whorf. ETC.: A Review of General Semantics , 73 (1), 95. https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-544562276/of-hopis-and-heptapods-the-return-of-sapir-whorf
Iwamoto, N. (2005). The Role of Language in Advancing Nationalism. Bulletin of the Institute of Humanities , 38 , 91–113.
Meier, R. P., & Pinker, S. (1995). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Language , 71 (3), 610. https://doi.org/10.2307/416234
Masuda, T., Ishii, K., Miwa, K., Rashid, M., Lee, H., & Mahdi, R. (2017). One Label or Two? Linguistic Influences on the Similarity Judgment of Objects between English and Japanese Speakers. Frontiers in Psychology , 8 . https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01637
Kay, P., & Kempton, W. (1984). What Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? American Anthropologist , 86 (1), 65–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/679389
Whorf, B. L. (2021). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf . Hassell Street Press.
Gregory Paul C. (MA)
Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.
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Supplement to Philosophy of Linguistics
Emergentists tend to follow Edward Sapir in taking an interest in interlinguistic and intralinguistic variation. Linguistic anthropologists have explicitly taken up the task of defending a famous claim associated with Sapir that connects linguistic variation to differences in thinking and cognition more generally. The claim is very often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (though this is a largely infelicitous label, as we shall see).
This topic is closely related to various forms of relativism—epistemological, ontological, conceptual, and moral—and its general outlines are discussed elsewhere in this encyclopedia; see the section on language in the Summer 2015 archived version of the entry on relativism (§3.1). Cultural versions of moral relativism suggest that, given how much cultures differ, what is moral for you might depend on the culture you were brought up in. A somewhat analogous view would suggest that, given how much language structures differ, what is thinkable for you might depend on the language you use. (This is actually a kind of conceptual relativism, but it is generally called linguistic relativism, and we will continue that practice.)
Even a brief skim of the vast literature on the topic is not remotely plausible in this article; and the primary literature is in any case more often polemical than enlightening. It certainly holds no general answer to what science has discovered about the influences of language on thought. Here we offer just a limited discussion of the alleged hypothesis and the rhetoric used in discussing it, the vapid and not so vapid forms it takes, and the prospects for actually devising testable scientific hypotheses about the influence of language on thought.
Whorf himself did not offer a hypothesis. He presented his “new principle of linguistic relativity” (Whorf 1956: 214) as a fact discovered by linguistic analysis:
When linguists became able to examine critically and scientifically a large number of languages of widely different patterns, their base of reference was expanded; they experienced an interruption of phenomena hitherto held universal, and a whole new order of significances came into their ken. It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. 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 kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in 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. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory ; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. (Whorf 1956: 212–214; emphasis in original)
Later, Whorf’s speculations about the “sensuously and operationally different” character of different snow types for “an Eskimo” (Whorf 1956: 216) developed into a familiar journalistic meme about the Inuit having dozens or scores or hundreds of words for snow; but few who repeat that urban legend recall Whorf’s emphasis on its being grammar, rather than lexicon, that cuts up and organizes nature for us.
In an article written in 1937, posthumously published in an academic journal (Whorf 1956: 87–101), Whorf clarifies what is most important about the effects of language on thought and world-view. He distinguishes ‘phenotypes’, which are overt grammatical categories typically indicated by morphemic markers, from what he called ‘cryptotypes’, which are covert grammatical categories, marked only implicitly by distributional patterns in a language that are not immediately apparent. In English, the past tense would be an example of a phenotype (it is marked by the - ed suffix in all regular verbs). Gender in personal names and common nouns would be an example of a cryptotype, not systematically marked by anything. In a cryptotype, “class membership of the word is not apparent until there is a question of using it or referring to it in one of these special types of sentence, and then we find that this word belongs to a class requiring some sort of distinctive treatment, which may even be the negative treatment of excluding that type of sentence” (p. 89).
Whorf’s point is the familiar one that linguistic structure is comprised, in part, of distributional patterns in language use that are not explicitly marked. What follows from this, according to Whorf, is not that the existing lexemes in a language (like its words for snow) comprise covert linguistic structure, but that patterns shared by word classes constitute linguistic structure. In ‘Language, mind, and reality’ (1942; published posthumously in Theosophist , a magazine published in India for the followers of the 19th-century spiritualist Helena Blavatsky) he wrote:
Because of the systematic, configurative nature of higher mind, the “patternment” aspect of language always overrides and controls the “lexation”…or name-giving aspect. Hence the meanings of specific words are less important than we fondly fancy. Sentences, not words, are the essence of speech, just as equations and functions, and not bare numbers, are the real meat of mathematics. We are all mistaken in our common belief that any word has an “exact meaning.” We have seen that the higher mind deals in symbols that have no fixed reference to anything, but are like blank checks, to be filled in as required, that stand for “any value” of a given variable, like …the x , y , z of algebra. (Whorf 1942: 258)
Whorf apparently thought that only personal and proper names have an exact meaning or reference (Whorf 1956: 259).
For Whorf, it was an unquestionable fact that language influences thought to some degree:
Actually, thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is thrown by the study of language. This study shows that the forms of a person’s thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious. These patterns are the unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language—shown readily enough by a candid comparison and contrast with other languages, especially those of a different linguistic family. His thinking itself is in a language—in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese. [footnote omitted] And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness. (Whorf 1956: 252)
He seems to regard it as necessarily true that language affects thought, given
- the fact that language must be used in order to think, and
- the facts about language structure that linguistic analysis discovers.
He also seems to presume that the only structure and logic that thought has is grammatical structure. These views are not the ones that after Whorf’s death came to be known as ‘the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’ (a sobriquet due to Hoijer 1954). Nor are they what was called the ‘Whorf thesis’ by Brown and Lenneberg (1954) which was concerned with the relation of obligatory lexical distinctions and thought. Brown and Lenneberg (1954) investigated this question by looking at the relation of color terminology in a language and the classificatory abilities of the speakers of that language. The issue of the relation between obligatory lexical distinctions and thought is at the heart of what is now called ‘the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’ or ‘the Whorf Hypothesis’ or ‘Whorfianism’.
1. Banal Whorfianism
No one is going to be impressed with a claim that some aspect of your language may affect how you think in some way or other; that is neither a philosophical thesis nor a psychological hypothesis. So it is appropriate to set aside entirely the kind of so-called hypotheses that Steven Pinker presents in The Stuff of Thought (2007: 126–128) as “five banal versions of the Whorfian hypothesis”:
- “Language affects thought because we get much of our knowledge through reading and conversation.”
- “A sentence can frame an event, affecting the way people construe it.”
- “The stock of words in a language reflects the kinds of things its speakers deal with in their lives and hence think about.”
- “[I]f one uses the word language in a loose way to refer to meanings,… then language is thought.”
- “When people think about an entity, among the many attributes they can think about is its name.”
These are just truisms, unrelated to any serious issue about linguistic relativism.
We should also set aside some methodological versions of linguistic relativism discussed in anthropology. It may be excellent advice to a budding anthropologist to be aware of linguistic diversity, and to be on the lookout for ways in which your language may affect your judgment of other cultures; but such advice does not constitute a hypothesis.
2. The so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
The term “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” was coined by Harry Hoijer in his contribution (Hoijer 1954) to a conference on the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf in 1953. But anyone looking in Hoijer’s paper for a clear statement of the hypothesis will look in vain. Curiously, despite his stated intent “to review and clarify the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” (1954: 93), Hoijer did not even attempt to state it. The closest he came was this:
The central idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that language functions, not simply as a device for reporting experience, but also, and more significantly, as a way of defining experience for its speakers.
The claim that “language functions…as a way of defining experience” appears to be offered as a kind of vague metaphysical insight rather than either a statement of linguistic relativism or a testable hypothesis.
And if Hoijer seriously meant that what qualitative experiences a speaker can have are constituted by that speaker’s language, then surely the claim is false. There is no reason to doubt that non-linguistic sentient creatures like cats can experience (for example) pain or heat or hunger, so having a language is not a necessary condition for having experiences. And it is surely not sufficient either: a robot with a sophisticated natural language processing capacity could be designed without the capacity for conscious experience.
In short, it is a mystery what Hoijer meant by his “central idea”.
Vague remarks of the same loosely metaphysical sort have continued to be a feature of the literature down to the present. The statements made in some recent papers, even in respected refereed journals, contain non-sequiturs echoing some of the remarks of Sapir, Whorf, and Hoijer. And they come from both sides of the debate.
3. Anti-Whorfian rhetoric
Lila Gleitman is an Essentialist on the other side of the contemporary debate: she is against linguistic relativism, and against the broadly Whorfian work of Stephen Levinson’s group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. In the context of criticizing a particular research design, Li and Gleitman (2002) quote Whorf’s claim that “language is the factor that limits free plasticity and rigidifies channels of development”. But in the claim cited, Whorf seems to be talking about the psychological topic that holds universally of human conceptual development, not claiming that linguistic relativism is true.
Li and Gleitman then claim (p. 266) that such (Whorfian) views “have diminished considerably in academic favor” in part because of “the universalist position of Chomskian linguistics, with its potential for explaining the striking similarity of language learning in children all over the world.” But there is no clear conflict or even a conceptual connection between Whorf’s views about language placing limits on developmental plasticity, and Chomsky’s thesis of an innate universal architecture for syntax. In short, there is no reason why Chomsky’s I-languages could not be innately constrained, but (once acquired) cognitively and developmentally constraining.
For example, the supposedly deep linguistic universal of ‘recursion’ (Hauser et al. 2002) is surely quite independent of whether the inventory of colour-name lexemes in your language influences the speed with which you can discriminate between color chips. And conversely, universal tendencies in color naming across languages (Kay and Regier 2006) do not show that color-naming differences among languages are without effect on categorical perception (Thierry et al. 2009).
4. Strong and weak Whorfianism
One of the first linguists to defend a general form of universalism against linguistic relativism, thus presupposing that they conflict, was Julia Penn (1972). She was also an early popularizer of the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ formulations of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (and an opponent of the ‘strong’ version).
‘Weak’ versions of Whorfianism state that language influences or defeasibly shapes thought. ‘Strong’ versions state that language determines thought, or fixes it in some way. The weak versions are commonly dismissed as banal (because of course there must be some influence), and the stronger versions as implausible.
The weak versions are considered banal because they are not adequately formulated as testable hypotheses that could conflict with relevant evidence about language and thought.
Why would the strong versions be thought implausible? For a language to make us think in a particular way, it might seem that it must at least temporarily prevent us from thinking in other ways, and thus make some thoughts not only inexpressible but unthinkable. If this were true, then strong Whorfianism would conflict with the Katzian effability claim. There would be thoughts that a person couldn’t think because of the language(s) they speak.
Some are fascinated by the idea that there are inaccessible thoughts; and the notion that learning a new language gives access to entirely new thoughts and concepts seems to be a staple of popular writing about the virtues of learning languages. But many scientists and philosophers intuitively rebel against violations of effability: thinking about concepts that no one has yet named is part of their job description.
The resolution lies in seeing that the language could affect certain aspects of our cognitive functioning without making certain thoughts unthinkable for us .
For example, Greek has separate terms for what we call light blue and dark blue, and no word meaning what ‘blue’ means in English: Greek forces a choice on this distinction. Experiments have shown (Thierry et al. 2009) that native speakers of Greek react faster when categorizing light blue and dark blue color chips—apparently a genuine effect of language on thought. But that does not make English speakers blind to the distinction, or imply that Greek speakers cannot grasp the idea of a hue falling somewhere between green and violet in the spectrum.
There is no general or global ineffability problem. There is, though, a peculiar aspect of strong Whorfian claims, giving them a local analog of ineffability: the content of such a claim cannot be expressed in any language it is true of . This does not make the claims self-undermining (as with the standard objections to relativism); it doesn’t even mean that they are untestable. They are somewhat anomalous, but nothing follows concerning the speakers of the language in question (except that they cannot state the hypothesis using the basic vocabulary and grammar that they ordinarily use).
If there were a true hypothesis about the limits that basic English vocabulary and constructions puts on what English speakers can think, the hypothesis would turn out to be inexpressible in English, using basic vocabulary and the usual repertoire of constructions. That might mean it would be hard for us to discuss it in an article in English unless we used terminological innovations or syntactic workarounds. But that doesn’t imply anything about English speakers’ ability to grasp concepts, or to develop new ways of expressing them by coining new words or elaborated syntax.
5. Constructing and evaluating Whorfian hypotheses
A number of considerations are relevant to formulating, testing, and evaluating Whorfian hypotheses.
Genuine hypotheses about the effects of language on thought will always have a duality: there will be a linguistic part and a non-linguistic one. The linguistic part will involve a claim that some feature is present in one language but absent in another.
Whorf himself saw that it was only obligatory features of languages that established “mental patterns” or “habitual thought” (Whorf 1956: 139), since if it were optional then the speaker could optionally do it one way or do it the other way. And so this would not be a case of “constraining the conceptual structure”. So we will likewise restrict our attention to obligatory features here.
Examples of relevant obligatory features would include lexical distinctions like the light vs. dark blue forced choice in Greek, or the forced choice between “in (fitting tightly)” vs. “in (fitting loosely)” in Korean. They also include grammatical distinctions like the forced choice in Spanish 2nd-person pronouns between informal/intimate and formal/distant (informal tú vs. formal usted in the singular; informal vosotros vs. formal ustedes in the plural), or the forced choice in Tamil 1st-person plural pronouns between inclusive (“we = me and you and perhaps others”) and exclusive (“we = me and others not including you”).
The non-linguistic part of a Whorfian hypothesis will contrast the psychological effects that habitually using the two languages has on their speakers. For example, one might conjecture that the habitual use of Spanish induces its speakers to be sensitive to the formal and informal character of the speaker’s relationship with their interlocutor while habitually using English does not.
So testing Whorfian hypotheses requires testing two independent hypotheses with the appropriate kinds of data. In consequence, evaluating them requires the expertise of both linguistics and psychology, and is a multidisciplinary enterprise. Clearly, the linguistic hypothesis may hold up where the psychological hypothesis does not, or conversely.
In addition, if linguists discovered that some linguistic feature was optional in two different languages, then even if psychological experiments showed differences between the two populations of speakers, this would not show linguistic determination or influence. The cognitive differences might depend on (say) cultural differences.
A further important consideration concerns the strength of the inducement relationship that a Whorfian hypothesis posits between a speaker’s language and their non-linguistic capacities. The claim that your language shapes or influences your cognition is quite different from the claim that your language makes certain kinds of cognition impossible (or obligatory) for you. The strength of any Whorfian hypothesis will vary depending on the kind of relationship being claimed, and the ease of revisability of that relation.
A testable Whorfian hypothesis will have a schematic form something like this:
- Linguistic part : Feature F is obligatory in L 1 but optional in L 2 .
- Psychological part : Speaking a language with obligatory feature F bears relation R to the cognitive effect C .
The relation R might in principle be causation or determination, but it is important to see that it might merely be correlation, or slight favoring; and the non-linguistic cognitive effect C might be readily suppressible or revisable.
Dan Slobin (1996) presents a view that competes with Whorfian hypotheses as standardly understood. He hypothesizes that when the speakers are using their cognitive abilities in the service of a linguistic ability (speaking, writing, translating, etc.), the language they are planning to use to express their thought will have a temporary online effect on how they express their thought. The claim is that as long as language users are thinking in order to frame their speech or writing or translation in some language, the mandatory features of that language will influence the way they think.
On Slobin’s view, these effects quickly attenuate as soon as the activity of thinking for speaking ends. For example, if a speaker is thinking for writing in Spanish, then Slobin’s hypothesis would predict that given the obligatory formal/informal 2nd-person pronoun distinction they would pay greater attention to the formal/informal character of their social relationships with their audience than if they were writing in English. But this effect is not permanent. As soon as they stop thinking for speaking, the effect of Spanish on their thought ends.
Slobin’s non-Whorfian linguistic relativist hypothesis raises the importance of psychological research on bilinguals or people who currently use two or more languages with a native or near-native facility. This is because one clear way to test Slobin-like hypotheses relative to Whorfian hypotheses would be to find out whether language correlated non-linguistic cognitive differences between speakers hold for bilinguals only when are thinking for speaking in one language, but not when they are thinking for speaking in some other language. If the relevant cognitive differences appeared and disappeared depending on which language speakers were planning to express themselves in, it would go some way to vindicate Slobin-like hypotheses over more traditional Whorfian Hypotheses. Of course, one could alternately accept a broadening of Whorfian hypotheses to include Slobin-like evanescent effects. Either way, attention must be paid to the persistence and revisability of the linguistic effects.
Kousta et al. (2008) shows that “for bilinguals there is intraspeaker relativity in semantic representations and, therefore, [grammatical] gender does not have a conceptual, non-linguistic effect” (843). Grammatical gender is obligatory in the languages in which it occurs and has been claimed by Whorfians to have persistent and enduring non-linguistic effects on representations of objects (Boroditsky et al. 2003). However, Kousta et al. supports the claim that bilinguals’ semantic representations vary depending on which language they are using, and thus have transient effects. This suggests that although some semantic representations of objects may vary from language to language, their non-linguistic cognitive effects are transitory.
Some advocates of Whorfianism have held that if Whorfian hypotheses were true, then meaning would be globally and radically indeterminate. Thus, the truth of Whorfian hypotheses is equated with global linguistic relativism—a well known self-undermining form of relativism. But as we have seen, not all Whorfian hypotheses are global hypotheses: they are about what is induced by particular linguistic features. And the associated non-linguistic perceptual and cognitive differences can be quite small, perhaps insignificant. For example, Thierry et al. (2009) provides evidence that an obligatory lexical distinction between light and dark blue affects Greek speakers’ color perception in the left hemisphere only. And the question of the degree to which this affects sensuous experience is not addressed.
The fact that Whorfian hypotheses need not be global linguistic relativist hypotheses means that they do not conflict with the claim that there are language universals. Structuralists of the first half of the 20th century tended to disfavor the idea of universals: Martin Joos’s characterization of structuralist linguistics as claiming that “languages can differ without limit as to either extent or direction” (Joos 1966, 228) has been much quoted in this connection. If the claim that languages can vary without limit were conjoined with the claim that languages have significant and permanent effects on the concepts and worldview of their speakers, a truly profound global linguistic relativism would result. But neither conjunct should be accepted. Joos’s remark is regarded by nearly all linguists today as overstated (and merely a caricature of the structuralists), and Whorfian hypotheses do not have to take a global or deterministic form.
John Lucy, a conscientious and conservative researcher of Whorfian hypotheses, has remarked:
We still know little about the connections between particular language patterns and mental life—let alone how they operate or how significant they are…a mere handful of empirical studies address the linguistic relativity proposal directly and nearly all are conceptually flawed. (Lucy 1996, 37)
Although further empirical studies on Whorfian hypotheses have been completed since Lucy published his 1996 review article, it is hard to find any that have satisfied the criteria of:
- adequately utilizing both the relevant linguistic and psychological research,
- focusing on obligatory rather than optional linguistic features,
- stating hypotheses in a clear testable way, and
- ruling out relevant competing Slobin-like hypotheses.
There is much important work yet to be done on testing the range of Whorfian hypotheses and other forms of linguistic conceptual relativism, and on understanding the significance of any Whorfian hypotheses that turn out to be well supported.
Copyright © 2022 by Barbara C. Scholz Francis Jeffry Pelletier < francisp @ ualberta . ca > Geoffrey K. Pullum < gpullum @ ed . ac . uk > Ryan Nefdt < ryan . nefdt @ uct . ac . za >
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The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Linguistic Theory
- An Introduction to Punctuation
- Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
- M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
- B.A., English, State University of New York
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the linguistic theory that the semantic structure of a language shapes or limits the ways in which a speaker forms conceptions of the world. It came about in 1929. The theory is named after the American anthropological linguist Edward Sapir (1884–1939) and his student Benjamin Whorf (1897–1941). It is also known as the theory of linguistic relativity, linguistic relativism, linguistic determinism, Whorfian hypothesis , and Whorfianism .
History of the Theory
The idea that a person's native language determines how he or she thinks was popular among behaviorists of the 1930s and on until cognitive psychology theories came about, beginning in the 1950s and increasing in influence in the 1960s. (Behaviorism taught that behavior is a result of external conditioning and doesn't take feelings, emotions, and thoughts into account as affecting behavior. Cognitive psychology studies mental processes such as creative thinking, problem-solving, and attention.)
Author Lera Boroditsky gave some background on ideas about the connections between languages and thought:
"The question of whether languages shape the way we think goes back centuries; Charlemagne proclaimed that 'to have a second language is to have a second soul.' But the idea went out of favor with scientists when Noam Chomsky 's theories of language gained popularity in the 1960s and '70s. Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages—essentially, that languages don't really differ from one another in significant ways...." ("Lost in Translation." "The Wall Street Journal," July 30, 2010)
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was taught in courses through the early 1970s and had become widely accepted as truth, but then it fell out of favor. By the 1990s, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was left for dead, author Steven Pinker wrote. "The cognitive revolution in psychology, which made the study of pure thought possible, and a number of studies showing meager effects of language on concepts, appeared to kill the concept in the 1990s... But recently it has been resurrected, and 'neo-Whorfianism' is now an active research topic in psycholinguistics ." ("The Stuff of Thought. "Viking, 2007)
Neo-Whorfianism is essentially a weaker version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and says that language influences a speaker's view of the world but does not inescapably determine it.
The Theory's Flaws
One big problem with the original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis stems from the idea that if a person's language has no word for a particular concept, then that person would not be able to understand that concept, which is untrue. Language doesn't necessarily control humans' ability to reason or have an emotional response to something or some idea. For example, take the German word sturmfrei , which essentially is the feeling when you have the whole house to yourself because your parents or roommates are away. Just because English doesn't have a single word for the idea doesn't mean that Americans can't understand the concept.
There's also the "chicken and egg" problem with the theory. "Languages, of course, are human creations, tools we invent and hone to suit our needs," Boroditsky continued. "Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn't tell us whether it's language that shapes thought or the other way around."
- Definition and Discussion of Chomskyan Linguistics
- Cognitive Grammar
- Generative Grammar: Definition and Examples
- Universal Grammar (UG)
- Transformational Grammar (TG) Definition and Examples
- Linguistic Competence: Definition and Examples
- Definition and Examples of Case Grammar
- An Introduction to Semantics
- Construction Grammar
- 10 Types of Grammar (and Counting)
- Pragmatics Gives Context to Language
- What Is Lexicogrammar?
- Definition and Examples of Syntax
- Figure of Thought in Rhetoric
- Learn the Definition of Mental Grammar and How it Works
- Where Did Language Come From? (Theories)
The ethnologist Frances Densmore, working for the Bureau of American Ethnology, and Mountain Chief, a Blackfoot leader. Photo from 1916 . Courtesy the Library of Congress
Our language, our world
Linguistic relativity holds that your worldview is structured by the language you speak. is it true history shines a light.
by James McElvenny + BIO
Anyone who has learned a second language will have made an exhilarating (and yet somehow unsettling) discovery: there is never a one-to-one correspondence in meaning between the words and phrases of one language and another. Even the most banal expressions have a slightly different sense, issuing from a network of attitudes and ideas unique to each language. Switching between languages, we may feel as if we are stepping from one world into another. Each language seemingly compels us to talk in a certain way and to see things from a particular perspective. But is this just an illusion? Does each language really embody a different worldview, or even dictate specific patterns of thought to its speakers?
In the modern academic context, such questions are usually treated under the rubrics of ‘linguistic relativity’ or the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. Contemporary research is focused on pinning down these questions, on trying to formulate them in rigorous terms that can be tested empirically. But current notions concerning connections between language, mind and worldview have a long history, spanning several intellectual epochs, each with their own preoccupations. Running through this history is a recurring scepticism surrounding linguistic relativity, engendered not only by the difficulties of pinning it down, but by a deep-seated ambivalence about the assumptions and implications of relativistic doctrines.
There is quite a bit at stake in entertaining the possibility of linguistic relativity – it impinges directly on our understanding of the nature of human language. A long-held assumption in Western philosophy, classically formulated in the work of Aristotle, maintains that words are mere labels we apply to existing ideas in order to share those ideas with others. But linguistic relativity makes language an active force in shaping our thoughts. Furthermore, if we permit fundamental variation between languages and their presumably entangled worldviews, we are confronted with difficult questions about the constitution of our common humanity. Could it be that there are unbridgeable gulfs in thinking and perception between groups of people speaking different languages?
T he roots of our present ideas about linguistic relativity extend at least as far back as the Enlightenment of the late 17th to the 18th century. Enlightenment discussions were often couched in terms of the ‘genius’ of a language, an expression first coined in French as le génie de la langue . The term was used in a wide variety of senses, to the point where it was often not clear what precisely was meant. One contemporary commentator remarked: ‘[W]e often ask what is the genius of a language, and it is difficult to say.’ What we can say is that the genius of a language was understood as representing its distinct character, the je ne sais quoi that constitutes the idiomatic in each idiom. This unique character was frequently taken to embody something of the national mentality of the speakers of a language.
A classic – and highly influential – formulation came in 1772 with the Treatise on the Origin of Language by the German philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803). In opposition to contemporaries who saw the ultimate origins of human language in animal cries, Herder insisted that there is a difference in kind between human and animal communication. Human language, so Herder argued, rests on the irreducible human capacity for ‘reflection’ ( Besonnenheit ), our ability to recognise and think about our own thoughts. In coining our words, we reflect on the properties of the things they name, and choose the most salient of these. Different peoples will have focused on different properties, with the result that each language with its characteristic forms will encapsulate a slightly different perspective on the world. As languages are passed on from generation to generation, the differences between them accumulate, making the languages and the worldviews they contain more and more distinct. In order to understand the unique perspective of each language, we must trace the forms of words back to their etymological origins.
The Herderian thread was picked up in the early 19th century and woven most expertly into a broader account of language and literature by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). Humboldt endorsed an element of linguistic determinism – that is, that language not only reflects a particular worldview but is actively involved in shaping it: ‘Language,’ he wrote , ‘is the forming organ of thought.’ The relationship he envisaged, however, was not one-way but dialectic. Between language and thought there inheres an endless feedback loop: our thoughts shape our words, and our words shape our thoughts. His account was not restricted to individual words – more important were the grammatical structures exhibited in the languages of the world. But even the study of grammar was only a preliminary to the real task, according to Humboldt. Grammar and vocabulary merely represent the ‘dead skeleton’ of a language. To capture its character, to see its ‘living structure’, we must appreciate its literature, the use made of the language by its most eloquent speakers and writers.
The inner form of a language, Steinthal believed, was the perfect window to the national mind
Despite Humboldt’s exhortations to seek the life of language in literature, his successors in the 19th century concentrated on devising classifications of languages revolving around their grammatical features. The goal was often described as identifying the ‘inner form’ of each language. ‘Inner form’ was a term used by Humboldt (although only fleetingly) to refer to the underlying structure and organisation of a language, as opposed to its ‘outer form’, the externally perceptible features of its words, grammar and sound system. Humboldt’s inner form carries forward the concerns of the Enlightenment’s genius of a language, while the outer form consists of the pedantic details of noun declensions, verb conjugations, regular sound substitutions and so on.
Many scholars working in Humboldt’s wake adopted his ‘inner form’ and developed it in different directions, although the most prominent version of this notion was that elaborated by Heymann Steinthal (1823-99). Inner form served as the centrepiece of Steinthal’s classification of languages, which in turn lay at the heart of his Völkerpsychologie , the ‘psychology of peoples’ or ‘ethnopsychology’. The overarching aim of Völkerpsychologie was to describe the supposed shared mentality of each nation. The inner form of a language, so believed Steinthal, was the perfect window to this national mind.
But during the course of the 19th century, talk of national minds and the character of languages fell out of fashion in the academic study of language. In this period, comparative-historical grammar became established as the premier field of linguistics. This is the approach that carefully compares words and grammatical forms across languages in order to chart their historical changes and identify their putative genealogical relations. Comparative-historical linguistics tells us, for example, that French, Italian and Spanish are all descended from Latin; that Hindi-Urdu, Bengali and Punjabi can trace their ancestry to Sanskrit; and that all these languages, along with many others traditionally spoken from western Europe to northern India, are part of the extended Indo-European family.
The hypothetical progenitor of this great family, Proto-Indo-European, has been lost to time, but elements of its vocabulary, grammar and sound system can be reconstructed from the traits of its descendants. Crucially, these are all aspects of the ‘outer form’ of languages – and the linguists who investigated these outer forms preferred to describe the historical transmutations they studied in terms of ‘sound laws’. Sound laws are mere statements of fact, that a sound attested in a certain phonetic environment in a parent language changes into other sounds in its descendants. Such accounts avoid invoking any hidden, underlying explanatory principles. Most comparative-historical grammarians believed that, for linguistics to be considered a serious science, it must limit itself to solid, objectively observable data. Uncovering the inner life of languages, capturing their characters and connections to thought and culture, were at best seen as future tasks for a thoroughly grounded science of language. At worst, they were taken to be nothing more than idle metaphysical speculation.
In what was the last gasp of the Humboldtian tradition in academic linguistics of the 19th century, the sinologist and general linguist Georg von der Gabelentz (1840-93) proposed a new subfield of ‘typology’, which would exhaustively survey the grammatical features of the world’s languages in order to discover the ‘typical traits, the ruling tendencies’ that determine linguistic structure. This undertaking would provide an empirical foundation for the ‘highest task’ of linguistics, explaining such structural tendencies as manifestations of the national mind. Gabelentz’s call for the new field fell on deaf ears in this age dominated by historical-comparative grammar. Typology would re-emerge as a mainstream pursuit in linguistics only in the early 20th century.
I n this same period, on the other side of the Atlantic, questions of mind and language did enjoy currency in a Humboldtian-inflected anthropology. Franz Boas (1858-1942), the ‘father’ of American anthropology, set out to compile the definitive compendium of the Indigenous languages of North America in his multi-volume Handbook of American Indian Languages , the first volume of which appeared in 1911. The grammatical descriptions contained in Boas’s handbook were to ‘depend entirely upon the inner form of each language’. ‘In other words,’ Boas elaborated, ‘the grammar has been treated as though an intelligent Indian was going to develop the forms of his own thoughts by an analysis of his own form of speech.’
But Boas was beset by an ambivalence about the implications of the mind-language nexus. Nineteenth-century discourse on the differences between nations was all too often predicated on an assumed hierarchy of humanity. There was a widespread belief that the peoples extant in the world today had reached different stages of evolution in their societies and cultures – and that this was attributable to differences in their cognitive abilities. At the top of the hierarchy was 19th-century European man, who had unfolded his mental powers in all directions, while at the bottom were the various Indigenous peoples of the world, usually believed to be stuck in an eternal childhood of humanity or to have degenerated from a previous state of ‘civilisation’.
Attitudes were not monolithic: there were many different schemes of human social, cultural and cognitive evolution in this period, admitting of many nuances. But even such figures as Humboldt, Steinthal and Gabelentz, who revelled in human diversity and praised the uniqueness of each language, were more partial to some languages than to others. American languages, argued Steinthal, actually have no inner form. The indisputably complex constructions attested in their grammars are merely mash-ups of concrete conceptual material without any underlying formal structure. Attitudes at the time among the leading anthropologists and linguists in the United States were even more extreme.
Anthropologists continued to consider possible connections between language and mind
Boas pushed back against such prejudiced schemes. He actually agreed with his opponents about the existence of some alleged deficits in Indigenous languages, but refused to see these as an index of mental development. Many American languages lack abstract terms and indefinitely large numbers, conceded Boas, but this is not because their speakers are incapable of grasping such concepts. It is simply the case that they have never had need to talk in abstract terms or count to higher numbers, and so have never had occasion to produce such forms in their languages. If this need arose, their languages would soon adapt.
Boas’s views were largely inspired by the teachings of his former mentor in Berlin, the ethnographer Adolf Bastian (1826-1905). Bastian advocated the principle of the ‘psychic unity of mankind’, the idea that all humans, no matter what their ancestry or their present cultural condition, have at base the same mental faculties and abilities. The apparently differing ‘ethnic thoughts’ of the various peoples of the world are merely different arrangements of the same ‘elementary thoughts’ common to all humanity. The human mind is essentially the same everywhere.
We therefore see in the 19th century a clear arc in the development of academic attitudes towards linguistic relativity. At the beginning of the century, linguistic relativity was a respectable position in the study of language, buoyed by the writings of such figures as Herder and Humboldt. But as the century wore on, academic linguistics became increasingly dominated by the school of comparative-historical grammarians, whose approach was highly technical and empirical in character. In this intellectual environment, linguists gradually turned away from the seemingly nebulous questions about the underlying conceptual apparatuses of languages. Anthropologists, by contrast, continued throughout the 19th century to consider possible connections between language and mind, but the hierarchical terms in which their discussions were often framed came under criticism towards the end of the century, in a movement spearheaded by Boas.
T he latter-day ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ is in many respects a continuation of the 19th-century debates. Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) were heirs to the Humboldtian tradition. Sapir was steeped in German language scholarship: his Master’s thesis was on Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Language . He was also one of Boas’s most talented and devoted pupils, and perpetuated his teacher’s positions. ‘Language and our thought-grooves are inextricably interwoven,’ wrote Sapir in 1921, ‘are, in a sense, one and the same.’ But, like Boas, he insisted that there are no ‘significant racial differences’ in thought across the human species, and no direct connections between culture and language. It is therefore impossible to infer alleged evolutionary stages from language structure: ‘When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.’
Despite the desire to extricate his research from the prejudices of past scholarship, Sapir was still invested in the project of analysing the grammatical ‘processes’ and ‘concepts’ attested in the languages of the world in order to identify the ‘type or plan or structural “genius”’ of each language. But this endeavour was tempered by a belief in the at least partial autonomy of linguistic form. On Sapir’s account, every language possesses an ‘inner phonetic system’ and ‘a definite feeling for patterning on the level of grammatical formation’, both of which ‘operate as such, regardless of the need for expressing particular concepts or of giving external shape to particular groups of concepts.’ Language, it would seem, was not quite so stuck in those thought-grooves.
Treating linguistic form as in some way autonomous was implicit in the 19th-century comparative-historical grammarians’ postulation of sound laws. In the 20th century, an explicit move was made by many linguists to hive off language structure as their private domain, an object they could investigate independently of any broader questions of cognition or the physical production and reception of speech. In these years, the Genevan linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) introduced a distinction between la langue (language) and la parole (speech), a distinction that has become fundamental to much subsequent linguistic scholarship. La langue is the abstract, self-contained system of each language, while la parole is the use of la langue to create actual utterances. Linguists, argued Saussure, should describe the properties of each langue without worrying about how it is instantiated in the minds and mouths of speakers. These are problems for the neighbouring sciences of psychology, physiology and physics. Sapir’s avowal of the formal autonomy of languages can be understood as part of this trend, even though at the same time he clearly did not wish to entirely relinquish his Humboldtian heritage, with its psychological and anthropological concerns.
There was a desire to break the spell of language, to revolt against its tyranny
But what about the linguistic determinism of the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Although neither Sapir nor Whorf ever formulated any precise, testable proposition postulating the influence of language on thought, they certainly envisaged such effects. In 1929, Sapir wrote:
The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group … The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached … We see and hear and otherwise experience largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.
Sapir and Whorf’s rhetoric answered to a contemporary moral panic about the use and abuse of language. The young 20th century saw public discourse perverted by new forms of propaganda, disseminated by such new technologies as radio and film, all of which accompanied and facilitated the catastrophic upheavals of the First World War and the political polarisation that resulted in the rise of totalitarian governments across Europe. There was a desire to break the spell of language, to revolt against its tyranny supporting irrationality and barbarity, and make it the servant of enlightened thought. This sentiment found expression in, among other places, the linguistic turn taken by the incipient analytic philosophy of this period. At the popularising end of the spectrum, innumerable manuals on meaning appeared, such as The Meaning of Meaning (1923) by C K Ogden and I A Richards, Science and Sanity (1933) by Alfred Korzybski, and The Tyranny of Words (1938) by Stuart Chase. This is the world of Orwell’s Newspeak, in which language is the master of mind.
Sapir and Whorf eagerly advertised the contribution their field of linguistics could make to solving these problems. In revealing the diversity of realities created by languages, linguistics could help to expose how language misleads us. In 1924, Sapir wrote:
Perhaps the best way to get behind our thought processes and to eliminate from them all the accidents or irrelevances due to their linguistic garb is to plunge into the study of exotic modes of expression. At any rate, I know of no better way to kill spurious ‘entities’.
B y the mid-20th century, language-critical discourse had died down and academic linguistics largely returned to the dispassionate scientism familiar from the end of the previous century. Assessing several claimed cases of links between language structure and culture across a diverse range of languages, the US linguist Joseph Greenberg (1915-2001) declared mid-century: ‘[O]ne does not find any underlying semantic patterns such as would be required for the semantic system of a language to reflect some over-all world view of a metaphysical nature.’
Greenberg was inspired by the work of Boas and Sapir, and reignited the torch of linguistic typology that had been raised up by Gabelentz at the end of the 19th century. Greenberg’s continuation of the old Humboldtian project of investigating the structural diversity of the world’s languages while disavowing any connection between structure and cognition or culture was decisive for the later development of typological theory. What for Gabelentz had been the ‘highest task’ of language research was now officially off limits in the last corner of linguistics concerned with capturing and comparing the grammatical character of languages.
Interest in diversity was in any case at a low point in the mid-20th century. In his pursuit of ‘universal grammar’, Noam Chomsky (1928-) strove to re-establish a kind of psychic unity of mankind. The differences between individual languages, on Chomsky’s account, are mere phantoms, superficial variations on the same underlying system produced by an innate faculty of language shared by all humans. The linguist’s task should not be to meticulously catalogue these variants, but to factor them out and discover the universal principles governing all languages. Following Chomsky’s lead, received opinion in most quarters of academic research maintained this fastidious separation of language and thought until the end of the 20th century.
But linguistic relativity would not suffer banishment. Linguists and psychologists who could not ignore these questions have brought relativity back into the academic mainstream and delivered solid results. To name just one example, in ongoing, cutting-edge work, researchers have shown that certain languages may allow their speakers to unlock senses that are the common possession of all humans but remain unutilised by most people. In English and many other languages, spatial location is usually described in egocentric terms. If a fly were to land on my leg, I might say: ‘A fly has landed on the right side of my leg.’ Right is an egocentric spatial term that orients objects in the world according to an imaginary left-right axis projected from my body.
We are all, in a sense, compasses. English speakers are, mostly, not consciously aware of this
However, this is not the only way we can conceptualise space. In the Gurindji language, spoken in northern Australia – as in many other languages of the world – locations are usually described using the cardinal directions north, south, east and west. Assuming that I am sitting so my right leg is oriented towards the west, the equivalent sentence in Gurindji would be: ‘ Karlarnimpalnginyi nyawama wurturrjima, walngin ngayinyja wurturrjila .’ Literally: ‘This is the outer upper west of (my) leg. The fly landed here on my leg.’ If I were to turn around and face the opposite direction, the fly would still – in egocentric terms – be on the right side of my leg, but a Gurindji speaker would point out that – in cardinal terms – the fly is now on the eastern part of my leg. While my private left-right axis might follow me around dutifully, the earth will always stand still.
The cardinal directions are not unknown in English, but they are typically employed only when talking on a geographical scale. By contrast, in Gurindji, even parts of the speaker’s body are located in a world-spanning co-ordinate system. Most English speakers would be at a loss to even identify the cardinal directions without the aid of a compass. How do Gurindji speakers do it? It would seem that they draw on a number of environmental cues, chief among these the course of the sun through the sky. But human neurophysiology is also sensitive to the magnetic field of Earth: the human brain responds in measurable ways to ambient magnetic fields. We are all, in a sense, compasses. English speakers are for the most part not consciously aware of this, even though their brain activity changes when surrounding magnetic fields are manipulated under experimental conditions. Recent experiments by the Australian linguist Felicity Meakins and her collaborators have shown that some Gurindji speakers can reliably report on shifts in ambient magnetic fields.
Gurindji speakers’ habit of using cardinal directions would seem to have opened up their powers of perception. At least some Gurindji speakers may be able to consciously feel Earth’s magnetic field. But do English speakers and Gurindji speakers live in ‘distinct worlds’, as Sapir would have it? Having greater sensitivity to some features of the environment still seems like something less than the all-encompassing, incommensurable worldviews of the Humboldtian tradition.
This is perhaps the chief source of the continuing scepticism regarding linguistic relativity in many academic quarters. We start with a feeling, an ineffable je ne sais quoi , that our language shapes our world. But to assess the truth of this claim, the scientist wants a hypothesis – a rigorous, experimentally testable statement of precisely how language shapes our world. Quasi-mystical meditations on my life in language are not the stuff of modern scientific journals. But any properly formulated hypothesis will necessarily be reductive and deflationary – devising empirical tests of the supposed differences in our worldviews inevitably means transforming our innermost feelings into detached, foreign objects that we can observe and analyse from the outside. Such tests can arguably never capture the totality and primordiality of the original feeling.
Does this mean that the scholarship of previous centuries has no place in today’s world or, alternatively, that modern science simply cannot fathom the philosophical depths explored by earlier work? Past and present scholarship are complementary. The writings of earlier scholars – however speculative they may seem to us now, and whatever problematic assumptions they may be built upon – undeniably capture something of our human experience and can inform the investigations of present-day researchers. In turn, the hypotheses and experiments of latter-day linguists and psychologists provide another perspective – shaped by the scientistic worldview of our own era – on these enduring questions of the connections between mind and language. In all these cases, we cannot even make sense of the questions without understanding something of the specific intellectual contexts in which they have arisen.
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Mahzarin R. Banaji
Ahmet Doruk Ünal
Culture is a crucial part of human life and every society has its own. Culture can be defined as roughly as ‘humans’ perception of the world’. Today we know that culture and language have a sincere relationship. According to Everett, culture reflects human life and language reflects the culture. For example, if a society’s language dies inevitably the culture of that society will perish too. Because of this close relationship linguists created theories about their parts. However, before talking about these theories it is useful to get familiar with some terms.
It's been a debatable question that language followed by thought and culture or the other way around. Famously quoted in celluloid, " Once you involve with new language you start dreaming in it " , surely this shows extreme view but fact is that our thought and culture get influenced by language we use to communicate with each other. We can desist that speakers of different languages therefore have cognition differently because of language clout.
Some have sought to describe the form of the relationship between language and mind, or more narrowed again, how language affects the human mind. Of the many characters that describes the relationship between language and mind, the authors saw that the exposure of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf is widely cited by various researchers in examining the relationship of language and mind. Sapir and Worf says that there is no two languages that have similarities to be considered as the same social reality. Sapir and Worf describe two hypotheses about the relationship between language and thought. The influence of language on thought can occur through habituation and operation of the formal aspects of language, for example gramar and lexicon. Whorf said that "grammatical and lexical resources of individual languages heavily constrain the conceptual representations available to their speakers". Gramar and the lexicon in a language determines that there is a conceptual representation of the user's language.
Ronald M.P. Silalahi
Language is a sign system which is used by society to cooperate, interact, and identify. Culture, Society, and Cognition is built based on human perception in their world. It is reflected through linguistics element used by language users for communication purposes. The idea about inter-relation of language and those three elements (Culture, Society, and Cognition) is conducted by an anthropologist and linguist, Edward Sapir. Sapir’s perspective on culture is highly influenced by some western linguist and philosopher (like Boas, Morris, and Saussure). Sapir believes that language is cultural product. The linguistic constructions in particular language are built from influence mechanisms. Each language related to immeasurable variety of experiences and a limited array of formal categories (both lexical and grammatical). These categories coherently related to the interpretation of experience in the world. Whorf believes that the system of categories in each language provides an unu...
—The Sapir-Whorf's Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis provokes intellectual discussion about the strong impact language has on our perception of the world around us. This paper intends to enliven the still open questions raised by this hypothesis. This is done by considering some of Sapir's, Whorf's, and other scholar's works.
Jowell H H Beh
"The primary focus of this study is to assess the impact of a spoken language on its speaker’s thoughts, perception and cognitive abilities. It is postulated that language, to a certain extent, can influence a person’s thought and his concept of the world, and that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is less faulty as it seemed to be. This study may be helpful in determining to what degree, does a spoken language shape its speaker’s cognition. It will also attempt to discuss what other pathways prospective researchers can take when conducting further studies on the said topic. Keywords: Language, Cognitive Abilities, Concept of the World "
The past decade has seen a remarkable resurgence of interest in the possible influences of language on ‘thought’, i.e. relativism, the “Whorf Theory Complex” (P. Lee), or the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (LRH). On the occasion of the Whorf centenary in 1997, a number of international conferences, workshops, and symposia were dedicated to the topic. This volume presents a collection of papers from the 26th International LAUD Symposium held at Gerhard Mercator University in Duisburg, Germany, April 1-5, 1998 under the title “Humboldt and Whorf Revisited: Universal and Culture-Specific Conceptualizations in Grammar and Lexis.”
Bilingualism relates to mastery in two languages or more. Meanwhile, Sapir Whorf hypothesis relates to linguistics relativity. According to Sapir Whorf hypothesis in linguistics relativity, language and mind have relationship. In other words, people who speak different language, they will have different thought in viewing the universe. When we combine the concept of bilingualism and Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, we will find that someone who can be master in two languages or more, he or she will have large thought in viewing the universe because of the language that he or she is master. In other words, someone who is master in two languages or more, he or she will have many ideas in viewing the worlds. This condition can help a teacher in teaching writing and also can help the students in writing process.
The history of empirical research on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is reviewed. A more sensitive test of the hypothesis is devised and a clear Whorfian effect is detected in the domain of color. A specijic mechanism is proposed to account for this effect and a second experiment , designed to block the hypothesized mechanism, is performed. The effect disappears as predicted. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is reevaluated in the light of these results. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND THE DOCTRINE OF RADICAL LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY is to be understood historically as a reaction to the denigrating attitude toward unwritten languages that was fostered by the evolutionary view prevalent in anthropology in the 19th century. Subsequently, the research of Boas and his students showed these languages to be as systematic and as logically rich as any European language, and it was perhaps inevitable that the latter finding should spawn a doctrine on non-European languages and cultures antithetical to the evolutionary view. If this doctrine of radical relativity has led to certain excesses of its own-in which the valid insistence on the integrity of each linguistic system has led to an underestimation of their common structural features-we should not forget that it nonetheless supplied a needed corrective to the ethnocentric evolutionism it replaced. Indeed, outside of certain rarified academic milieux, the early relativists' battle for a rational and unprejudiced view of our nonliterate contemporaries is not yet won. Sapir was Boas's student and Whorf, Sapir's. The following two passages are among the most frequently cited from Sapir and Whorf, respectively. In the first, Sapir expresses , in terms no less lucid for being poetic, the basic empirical finding of the Boasians on the formal completeness and intellectual adequacy of unwritten languages. Both simple and complex types of language of an indefinite number of varieties may be found spoken at any desired level of cultural advance. When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the headhunting savage of Assam. [Sapir 1921 : 21 91 In the second passage, Whorf takes the further step, foreshadowed in other writings of
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Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Essays Example
Type of paper: Essay
Topic: Language , Symbolism , Communication , Philosophy , The World , Lens , Importance , Network
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The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the ideal that people view and understand the world through the lens of language (Macionis, 2011). One way in which language can affect how we see the world culturally is sentence order. Many languages express themselves differently, placing a different importance upon nouns, verbs, etc. For instance, in English sentence order typically subject, verb, object while Japanese is subject, object, verb and Welsh is verb, subject, and object (Plato.stanford.edu, 2015). Each language places a different importance on the subject; this may be a reflection on the importance placed upon the subject in the actual culture. Language is also rife with symbolism. While symbolism is all around us, from forms of dress to types of jewelry, language is the most complicated, subtle and highly developed form of symbolism (Uefap.com, 2015). For instance, an American might say that someone is eating like a cow, or chewing like a cow, meaning that they are eating too much or chewing in a way that I sonly acceptable among animals. Should they go to India and say the same thing, it would be offensive because Indian culture exalts cows. The American would not understand what the issue was though, because they would be viewing the situation through the lens of their language and its unique sayings. This carries over to our body language as well. For example, for most of the world the thumbs up is a non-verbal cue that something is good. In Thailand it is the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at someone and taunting them (Matador Network, 2015). Similarly, the “OK” symbol where ones thumb and forefinger make and O and the other fingers stay straight up means good or everything is good in the United States, while in France it means that you are a zero, nothing (Matador Network, 2015). As you can see, our non-verbal language and symbolism is definitely seen through the lens of our specific culture.
Macionis, J. (2011). Society. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. Matador Network,. (2015). 10 common gestures easily misunderstood abroad. Retrieved 13 July 2015, from http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/10-common-gestures-easily- misunderstood-abroad/ Plato.stanford.edu,. (2015). Relativism > The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Retrieved 13 July 2015, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/supplement2.html Uefap.com,. (2015). EAP Reading. Retrieved 13 July 2015, from http://www.uefap.com/reading/exercise/ess2/hayakawa.htm
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