Sapir–Whorf hypothesis - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Page 1 of 8
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Sapir Whorf)
The neutrality of this article is disputed.
Please see the discussion on the talk page.
In linguistics, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (SWH) states that there is a systematic relationship between the
grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and
behaves in it. Although it has come to be known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, it rather was an axiom underlying
the work of linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and student Benjamin Whorf.
2 Experimental support
4 Linguistic determinism
5 Fictional presence
7 See also
8 Further reading
8.1 Empirical examples
9 External links
The position that language anchors thought (thinking is shabdanA or 'languaging') was argued cogently by
Bhartrihari (6th c.AD) and was the subject of centuries of debate in the Indian linguistic tradition. Related notions
in the West, such as the axiom that language has controlling effects upon thought, can be traced to Wilhelm von
Humboldt's essay "Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium" (On the comparative study of languages), and the
notion has been largely assimilated into Western thought. Karl Kerenyi began his 1976 English language
translation of Dionysus with this passage:
"The interdependence of thought and speech makes it clear that languages are not so much a means of
expressing truth that has already been established, but are a means of discovering truth that was
previously unknown. Their diversity is a diversity not of sounds and signs but of ways of looking at the
The origin of the SWH as a more rigorous examination of this familiar cultural perception can be traced back to
the work of Franz Boas, the founder of anthropology in the United States. Boas was educated in Germany in the
late 19th century at a time when scientists such as Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann were attempting to
understand the physiology of sensation.
One important philosophical approach at the time was a revival of interest in the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant
claimed that knowledge was the result of concrete cognitive work on the part of an individual person—reality
("sensuous intuition") was inherently in flux and understanding resulted when someone took that intuition and
Sapir–Whorf hypothesis - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Page 2 of 8
interpreted it via their "categories of the understanding." Different individuals may thus perceive the same
noumenal reality as phenomenal instances of their different, individual concepts.
In the United States, Boas encountered Native American languages from many different linguistic families—all of
which were quite different from the Semitic and Indo-European languages which most European scholars studied.
Boas came to realize how greatly ways of life and grammatical categories could vary from one place to another.
As a result he came to believe that the culture and lifeways of a people were reflected in the language that they
Sapir was one of Boas' star students. He furthered Boas' argument by noting that languages were systematic,
formally complete systems. Thus, it was not this or that particular word that expressed a particular mode of
thought or behavior, but that the coherent and systematic nature of language interacted at a wider level with
thought and behavior. While his views changed over time, it seems that towards the end of his life Sapir came to
believe that language did not merely mirror culture and habitual action, but that language and thought might in
fact be in a relationship of mutual influence or perhaps even determination.
Whorf gave this idea greater precision by examining the particular grammatical mechanisms by which thought
influenced language. He argued his point thus:
"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... all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe,
unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated."
— (Language, Thought and Reality pp. 212–214).
Whorf's formulation of this "principle of linguistic relativity" is often stereotyped as a "prisonhouse" view of
language in which one's thinking and behavior is completely and utterly shaped by one's language. While some
people might make this "vulgar Whorfian" argument, Whorf himself sought merely to insist that thought and
action were linguistically and socially mediated. In doing so he opposed what he called a "natural logic" position
which he claimed believed "talking, or the use of language, is supposed only to 'express' what is essentially
already formulated nonlinguistically" (Language, Thought and Reality p. 207). On this account, he argued,
"thought does not depend on grammar but on laws of logic or reason which are supposed to be the same for all
observers of the universe" (Language, Thought and Reality p. 208).
Whorf's close analysis of the differences between English and (in one famous instance) the Hopi language raised
the bar for an analysis of the relationship between language, thought, and reality by relying on close analysis of
grammatical structure, rather than a more impressionistic account of the differences between, say, vocabulary
items in a language. For example, "Standard Average European" (SAE) – i.e., Western languages in general –
tends to analyse reality as objects in space: the present and future are thought of as a "places", and time is a path
linking them. A phrase like "three days" is grammatically equivalent to "three apples", or "three kilometres".
Other languages, including many Native American languages, are oriented towards process. To monolingual
speakers of such languages, the concrete/spatial metaphors of SAE grammar may make little sense. Whorf
himself claimed that his work on the SWH was inspired by his insight that a Hopi speaker would find relativistic
physics fundamentally easier to grasp than an SAE speaker would.
As a result of his status as a student and not as a professional linguist, Whorf's work on linguistic relativity,
conducted largely in the late 1930s, did not become popular until the posthumous publication of his writings in
the 1950s. In 1955, Dr. James Cooke Brown created the Loglan constructed language (Lojban, a reformed variant
Sapir–Whorf hypothesis - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Page 3 of 8
of Loglan, still exists as a living language) in order to test the hypothesis. However, no such experiment was ever
conducted. Linguistic theories of the 1960s— such as those proposed by Noam Chomsky —focused on the
innateness and universality of language. As a result Whorf's work fell out of favor. An example of a recent
Chomskian approach to this issue is Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct. Pinker argues from a
contravening school of thought that holds that some sort of universal grammar underlies all language. The most
extreme proponents of this theory, such as Pinker, argue that thought is independent of language, and that
language is itself meaningless in any fundamental way to human thought, and that human beings do not even
think in what is called “natural” language, which is to say in any of the languages that we actually speak or write,
but rather, we think in a meta-language that precedes any spoken language; this language of thought is called
“mentalese”. Such an idea is expounded by such cognitive psychologists and linguists as Pinker (1994) who,
referring to “Whorf’s radical position” (p. 60), argues vehemently against the Whorfian idea that language
contains thought and culture, going so far as to declare, “the more you examine Whorf’s arguments, the less sense
they make” (p. 60).
A more 'Whorfian' approach might be represented by authors such as George Lakoff, who have argued all
language is essentially metaphor. For instance, English employs many metaphorical tropes that in one way or
another equate time with money, e.g.:
A Whorfian interpretation would be that this usage influences the way English speakers conceive of the abstract
quality of "time." For another example, political arguments are shaped by the web of conceptual metaphors that
underlie language use. In political debates, it matters a great deal whether one is arguing in favor of the "right to
life" or against the "right to choose"; whether one is discussing "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers."
In the late 1980s and early 1990s advances in cognitive psychology and anthropological linguistics renewed
interest in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Today researchers disagree — often intensely — about how strongly
language influences thought. However, this disagreement has sparked increasing interest in the issue and a great
deal of innovative and important research.
The neutrality of this article is disputed.
Please see the discussion on the talk page.
The opposing idea — that language has absolutely no influence on thought at all — is widely considered to be
false.(Gumperz: introduction to Gumperz 1996) But the strong version of the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, that
language determines thought, is also thought to be false. The most common view is that the truth lies somewhere
in between the two and currently linguists rather than studying whether language affects thought, are studying
how it affects thought. Earlier the bulk of the research was concentrating on supporting or disproving the
hypothesis, the experimental data has not been able to disprove it.
For example Kay & Kempton, John A Lucy and other linguists working with colour terminology have shown that
people's discrimination of similar colors can be influenced by how their language organizes color names. A study
with members of the Tarahumara people who have no colour term for blue but group green and blue shades
together under one term showed a reduced ability to identify differences in color of colored chips that lie in the
blue area (Kay & Kempton 1984). However, these results may only indicate a reduced ability to communicate a
recognized difference in color due to the influence of their language system on their brain structure, rather than an
Sapir–Whorf hypothesis - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Page 4 of 8
actual lack of perception..). Another study showed that deaf children of hearing parents may fail on some
cognitive tasks unrelated to hearing, while deaf children of deaf parents succeed, due to the hearing parents being
less fluent in sign language.
One study by Daniel Everret (et al.) showed that, even with extensive training, adult members of a amazonian
community whose language had only three number words: "one," "two," and "many," were unable to learn even
simple mathematics.(Everrett 2005) (See Pirahã language)
Investigation into the recall of linguistic entities confirms that the brain stores associations between semantic
concepts (like the idea of a house) and phoenetic representation (the sounds that make up the word "house"). The
initial sounds are more important for recall purposes than later sounds. Relationships between semantic concepts
are also stored, but indirect relationships between unrelated concepts can be inadvertently triggered by a "bridge"
through a phoenetic relationship. For example, the recall of the idea of a house can be sped up by exposure to the
word "Homer" because they share the same initial sound.
A possible argument against the strong ("Weltanschauung") version of this idea, that most thought is constrained
by language, can be discovered through personal experience: all people have occasional difficulty expressing
themselves due to constraints in the language, and are conscious that the language is not adequate for what they
mean. Perhaps they say or write something, and then think "that's not quite what I meant to say" or perhaps they
cannot find a good way to explain a concept they understand to a novice. This makes it clear that what is being
thought is not a set of words, because one can understand a concept without being able to express it in words.
Many psychological experiments concern the means by which the brain processes, stores, and recalls information.
Studies concerning the storage of linguistic utterances (e.g. when listening to someone speak, or when reading a
book) shows that in most cases the brain stores the actual words recorded by the senses for only a very short
period of time. For people with the capability to hear spoken language, this representation is phonetic, even for
written language. (This is related to, for example, the relatively high frequency of spelling mistakes involving
homophones like "there" and "their".) Unless special effort is made at rote memorization, longer term storage of
utterances involves distillation into a simpler semantic representation. Thus when people are asked to recall an
utterance, they are generally able to easily replicate the meaning - they capture the "gist" of what was said or
written - but are unable to reproduce the exact wording (though in many cases they do not realize they are using
slightly different words than the original speaker). The existence of a semantic representation distinct from
phonetic representation raises questions about how closely tied the two layers are, or need to be.
The processing and storage of spatial information (one aspect of "thought") appears to involve some non-
linguistic aspects. For example, some experiments consider the problem of object comparison. Imagine a cartoon
drawing of a house. Now imagine two copies of that drawing. The first is rotated clockwise 90 degrees, so the
house is laying on its side. The second is only rotated 45 degrees, so the house is simply tilted. Suppose that these
three drawings are mixed in with similar drawings in random rotations, which do not actually represent houses.
The experimental subject is shown the picture of the house and asked to identify which drawings in the lineup are
the same. Studies which have performed this experiment show that the time it takes for someone to correctly
recognize the tilted versions of the same picture is proportional to the amount of rotation. This leads to the
hypothesis that the brain is "mentally rotating" the candidate pictures to attempt to match the reference copy, and
that it takes longer to rotate through 90 degrees than 45. The possibility that this process is independent of either
the semantic concept of "house" or the word that represents it raises doubts about the Safir-Whorf hypothesis.
Psychological studies of animals indicate that they are able to process and store certain types of spatial
information (such as geographical information about territory and food sources). This and the close relationship
between spatial memory and the visual system suggests that these aspects of the brain may have evolved before
Sapir–Whorf hypothesis - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Page 5 of 8
Among the most frequently cited examples of linguistic determinism is Whorf's study of the language of the
Inuit, who were thought to have multiple words for snow. He argues that this modifies the world view of the Inuit,
creating a different mode of existence for them than, for instance, a speaker of English. The notion that Arctic
people have an unusually large number of words for snow has been shown to be false by linguist Geoffrey
Pullum; in an essay titled The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, he tracks down the origin of the story, ultimately
attributing it largely to Whorf and suggesting the triviality of Whorf's observations. (Whatever the conclusion to
the snow debate, it should be noted that Whorf's developed thought focused on ubiquitous grammatical categories,
especially covert ones, not lexical sets.)
These ideas have met with some resistance in the linguistic community. Numerous studies in color perception
across various cultures have resulted in differing viewpoints. (Berlin & Kay, 1969; Heider, 1972; Heider &
Oliver, 1973; Rosch, 1974; Miller & Johnson-Laird, 1976)
Recently, however, there has been a resurgence in the idea of linguistic determinism. An important case study by
John A. Lucy on perception of numerosity in Mayan found compelling evidence for the hypothesis. Based on
grammatical analyses of the structure of both English and Mayan in a universalist grammatical framework he
ventured substantive hypotheses about the performance of speakers of both languages on a series of verbal and
non-verbal tests. His results seem to confirm his hypotheses.
A recent study by Peter Gordon examines the language of the Pirahã tribe of Brazil. According to Gordon, the
language used by this tribe only contains three counting words: one, two and many. Gordon shows through a
series of experiments that the people of the Pirahã tribe have difficulty recounting numbers higher than three
(Gordon, 2004). However, the causal relationship of these events is not clear. Critics have argued that if the test
subjects are unable to count numbers higher than three for some other reason (perhaps because they are nomadic
hunter/gatherers with nothing to count and hence no need to practice doing so) then one should not expect their
language to have words for such numbers. That is, it is the lack of need which explains both the lack of counting
ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary.
George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a striking example of linguistic determinism and linguistic
relativity in fiction, in which a language known as Newspeak has trimmed and supplanted Modern English. In this
case, Orwell says that if humans cannot form the words to express the ideas underlying a revolution, then they
cannot revolt. All of the theory of Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words. For example, bad has been
replaced by ungood, and the concept of freedom has been eliminated over time. Note, that this is regarded as a
method of preventing the communication of "undesireable" concepts, not as a means of preventing their
Jack Vance's science fiction novel The Languages of Pao centers on an experiment in modeling a civilization by
tweaking its language. The future planet of Pao, inhabited by peasant cultivators who bow passively to absolute
monarchy and are prey to foreign invaders, creates three castes - of warriors, merchants, and technicians - each
with a specifically-tailored language designed to instill the appropriate skills and mindsets. As a result the planet
overcomes its foreign military invaders and economic exploiters, but becomes dangerously divided into mutually-
hostile castes - and this is overcome by developing yet another language, a "pastiche" which combines elements
from the languages of the three castes as well as the planet's original language, this Pastiche becoming the
language of the reunified, versatile society.