Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis)

Mia Belle Frothingham

Harvard Graduate

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?

Collection of talking people. Men and women with speech bubbles. Communication and interaction. Friends, students or colleagues. Cartoon flat vector illustrations isolated on white background

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.

Supporting Evidence

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?

Modern Relevance

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.


the sapir whorf hypothesis reflects

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the sapir whorf hypothesis reflects

Can the language we use affect how we think? As a university student studying language, there will be plenty of theories and theorists you'll need to learn about. In this article, we're going to cover the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was first proposed by Edward Sapir in 1929 and was later supplemented…

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Can the language we use affect how we think? As a university student studying language, there will be plenty of theories and theorists you'll need to learn about. In this article, we're going to cover the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was first proposed by Edward Sapir in 1929 and was later supplemented and advanced by Benjamin Whorf. To ensure we cover all the relevant information, we'll be looking at a Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis definition, an example, some criticism, and a summary of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, silhoutte heads with cog brains, StudySmarter

So, how does language relate to thinking? Let's find out.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Definition

Before we get into a deeper analysis of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, let's first equip ourselves with a definition:

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a hypothesis about linguistic relativity. The concept behind it is that the structure and vocabulary of a particular language will influence or determine the perception, worldview, or cognition of the native speakers of that language.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is also known as the hypothesis of linguistic relativity. We will use both terms in this article.

Summary of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

In summary, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests the language a person uses determines or influences their thinking or worldview. The grammatical and lexical structures used by a person (or population speaking the same language) do have a significant impact on their cognition, according to the hypothesis.

The relationship between language and thinking can be seen in how language is influenced by cultural factors . The culture of a country or demographic is essentially the set of beliefs and values through which we experience and perceive the world. Each unique culture will have a different language or language variety. Because culture is specific to each group, each group will develop linguistic structures and different words to describe phenomena pertinent to their culture.

According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, because different groups use different languages or use language in different ways, they will perceive the world differently. According to the hypothesis, these two phenomena are inextricably (impossible to separate) linked.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Example

It's one thing to understand what the hypothesis states. It's another thing to understand how it works. Let's look at a couple of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis examples to help illustrate what the hypothesis proposes.

Did you know that the Inuit (the indigenous people from Alaska and other Arctic regions) have over 100 different words for snow? This " fact " has circulated for some time but is actually an exaggeration.

Although 100 is too high a number, the Inuit do have between 40 and 50 words to refer to snow, depending on different types of snow and their uses. A few examples include:

  • qanik: falling snow
  • aniu: snow used to make drinking water
  • aputi: snow on the ground

Most other cultures do not have even close to 40 words for snow, and because the Inuit do, it suggests that they have a more integral understanding or in-depth perception of snow itself.

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, close-up of a snowflake, StudySmarter

You might have heard or seen the word "hygge" before, perhaps in a bookshop or on TV. The word "hygge" is a Danish and Norwegian word that has a complex meaning.

Hygge refers to feelings of coziness, contentment, well-being , and the quality of being comfortably friendly and lively (convivial).

Gendered language can also illustrate the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

For example, in English, we have words such as "fireman" and "policeman" that, when used prolifically, convey the idea that only men are fit for such roles. Likewise, other marked terms (the altered form of a word that is often given lower prestige than the default unmarked term), such as "headmistress" and "manageress," also suggest less importance or power than their unmarked counterparts. The same is true for terms such as "male nurse," which implies men are not the default demographic for this job.

As language use has evolved over the years, more gender-neutral terms have come into use ("firefighter," "police officer," "head teacher," "manager," and "nurse"). Continued use of these terms has shifted the thinking that certain jobs are only for certain genders to a more inclusive understanding.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Evaluation

Now that we know what the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is and have seen some examples of it in action, we can move on to our Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis evaluation.

There is a dichotomy (a division into two parts) that exists within the hypothesis. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is often spoken about in stronger or weaker terms. What do we mean by this?

Within the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, there are two sub-categories: linguistic determinism (stronger) and linguistic relativism (weaker) .

This is the "stronger" way of viewing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which states that cognition is determined by language. The assumption that can be made using this theory is that the language we use is the reason we think the way we do.

Each country and culture has its beliefs and values as a direct result of the language it uses. A country that does not have the language to describe a particular idea or concept cannot possibly understand or perceive it.

It is worth noting that linguistic determinism is generally believed to be reductionist and incorrect nowadays, as it doesn't take individual differences and subjective experience into account. We will touch on this again in the section on criticism of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

If something is reductionist , it takes a complex idea and analyses it in terms of its smallest components. This can lead to inaccurate or over-generalized conclusions that do not properly reflect the idea being analyzed.

Linguistic Relativism

Linguistic relativism is the "weaker" or less intense version of linguistic determinism. It states that the language a person uses influences their perception of the world but does not define it.

Linguistic relativism gives individuals a bit more credit than linguistic determinism, as it allows for the idea that people can still understand a concept even if they don't have the specific language to describe it. For example, let's look at the word hygge again. English-speaking people can still understand the concept of hygge , even though we don't have one specific word to describe it like the Danish and Norwegian people do.

Linguistic relativism is generally more widely accepted than linguistic determinism.

Criticism of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

As with all linguistic theories and hypotheses, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is not without its faults. Here are some examples of criticism of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis:

  • The linguistic determinism aspect of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is reductionist . It has long since been debunked that language is a direct determiner of cognition. Thought is a much more complicated process than simply being a result of a person's language. People are able to think about and understand concepts that they may not have the exact language for.

There is an issue of causality . We cannot prove that language influences thinking. Could it be instead that thinking influences language? In the example of gendered vs. gender-neutral language, for instance, it could be assumed that the use of gender-neutral language shifted the perception and thinking of speakers to be more inclusive. However, it could also be theorized that speakers' evolving perceptions and thinking led to the introduction of more gender-neutral language. It's a classic chicken-and-egg situation.

  • The hypothesis cannot be transferred or applied to all languages. There are examples we can look at for a particular language that might illustrate or suggest a basis for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (e.g., the many words for snow used by the Inuit). However, there is no way to know for sure that other cultures don't also understand and perceive the different kinds of snow, even if they don't have the same breadth of vocabulary for it.

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, two police officers, StudySmarter

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis - Key takeaways

  • The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that language influences cognition and thinking and can alter a person's worldview.
  • The hypothesis has two underlying theories: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism.
  • Linguistic determinism states that language use determines or defines thinking and perception.
  • Linguistic relativism states that language use may influence thinking but does not define it.
  • Some criticisms of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis are that it is reductionist, not transferrable to all languages, and cannot be proven in terms of causality.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

--> how do you explain sapir-whorf hypothesis.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also called the hypothesis of linguistic relativity and it states that language use influences or determines the cognition, thinking, and world-view of the speaker.

--> What are the two parts of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

The two parts of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis are linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism. Linguistic determinism states that language defines a person's thinking and perception, whereas linguistic relativism says language can influence cognition and perception but does not define it. 

--> What is some evidence that supports the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Although there is no direct evidence that proves the Sapir Whorf hypothesis, there are some examples that suggest the theory has some validity. For example, the fact that the Inuit have over 40 words for snow suggests that they have a more in-depth perception and understanding of snow. Likewise, the Danish and Norwegian word "hygge" is a word that we do not have in English. This implies that Danish and Norwegian people have a better understanding of the feeling of hygge than people who do not have a word for what it describes. 

--> Why is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis discredited?

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has been found to be reductionist and lacking in transferability and provable causality. Therefore, it is not held in as high esteem as it was when it was first proposed. 

--> Why is the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis rejected?

The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis has been generally rejected mostly due to the idea of linguistic determinism, which takes a very reductionist and even incorrect stance on the relationship between language and cognition.

Final Sapir Whorf Hypothesis Quiz

Sapir whorf hypothesis quiz - teste dein wissen.

In what year was the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis first proposed, and who was the first to suggest it?

Show answer

1929, Edward Sapir

Show question

Briefly describe the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis is a hypothesis about linguistic relativity which states that the structure and vocabulary of a particular language will influence or determine the   perception, worldview, or cognition   of the native speakers of that language. 

What is another term that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is commonly known by?

The Hypothesis of Linguistic Relativity.

Finish this sentence:

" The relationship between language and thinking can be seen in how language is influenced by______."    

cultural factors

True or false, according to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, different cultures perceive the world in different ways.

How does the fact that the Inuit have 40+ words for snow support the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Most other cultures do not have even close to 40 words for snow, and because the Inuit do, it suggests that they have a more integral understanding or in-depth perception of snow itself. This in turn suggests that their language use has enhanced their understanding of snow.

What are marked terms and unmarked terms?

An unmarked term is the default form of the term, e.g., "manager". A marked term is the altered form of a word that is often given lower prestige than the unmarked term, e.g., "manageress".

How does gendered language support the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Gendered terms (e.g., fireman) create the perception that certain genders are not the default for certain jobs (for example). The shift to more gender-neutral language (e.g., firefighter) has shifted society's perception about who can do what job. Perception has become more inclusive due to the linguistic shift. 

What is the dichotomy in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

It has two sub-categories.

What are the two sub-categories of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism

Briefly describe what linguistic determinism is.

Linguistic determinism states that cognition is   determined  by language.   Using linguistic determinism, you can assume that the language we use is the reason we think the way we do. 

Briefly describe linguistic relativism.

Linguistic relativism  states that the language a person uses   influences   their perception of the world, but does not define it.  

Which is considered the "weaker" form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Linguistic relativism

Briefly explain the issue of causality as a criticism of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

We cannot prove that language influences thinking.  It could be the other way around and thinking could influence language instead.

Which of these is NOT a criticism of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

It was proposed too long ago to be relevant in modern language.

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Finish this sentence:"The relationship between language and thinking can be seen in how language is influenced by______."  

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Group 6: Potpourri

Linguistic relativity: the whorf hypothesis.

the sapir whorf hypothesis reflects

In the 1920s, Benjamin Whorf was a graduate student studying with linguist Edward Sapir at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Sapir, considered the father of American linguistic anthropology, was responsible for documenting and recording the languages and cultures of many Native American tribes, which were disappearing at an alarming rate. This was due primarily to the deliberate efforts of the United States government to force Native Americans to assimilate into the Euro-American culture.

Sapir and his predecessors were well aware of the close relationship between culture and language because each culture is reflected in and influences its language. Anthropologists need to learn the language of the culture they are studying in order to understand the world view of its speakers. Whorf believed that the reverse is also true, that a language affects culture as well, by actually influencing how its speakers think. His hypothesis proposes that the words and the structures of a language influence how its speakers think about the world, how they behave, and ultimately the culture itself. Simply stated, Whorf believed that human beings see the world the way they do because the specific languages they speak influence them to do so. He developed this idea through both his work with Sapir and his work as a chemical engineer for the Hartford Insurance Company investigating the causes of fires.

the sapir whorf hypothesis reflects

One of his cases while working for the insurance company was a fire at a business where there were a number of gasoline drums. Those that contained gasoline were surrounded by signs warning employees to be cautious around them and to avoid smoking near them. The workers were always careful around those drums. On the other hand, empty gasoline drums were stored in another area, but employees were more careless there. Someone tossed a cigarette or lighted match into one of the “empty” drums, it went up in flames, and started a fire that burned the business to the ground. Whorf theorized that the meaning of the word  empty  implied to the worker that “nothing” was there to be cautious about so the worker behaved accordingly. Unfortunately, an “empty” gasoline drum may still contain fumes, which are more flammable than the liquid itself.

Whorf’s studies at Yale involved working with Native American languages, including Hopi. The Hopi language is quite different from English, in many ways. For example, let’s look at how the Hopi language deals with time. Western languages (and cultures) view time as a flowing river in which we are being carried continuously away from a past, through the present, and into a future. Our verb systems reflect that concept with specific tenses for past, present, and future. We think of this concept of time as universal, that all humans see it the same way. A Hopi speaker has very different ideas and the structure of their language both reflects and shapes the way they think about time. The Hopi language has no present, past, or future tense. Instead, it divides the world into what Whorf called the manifested and unmanifest domains. The manifested domain deals with the physical universe, including the present, the immediate past and future; the verb system uses the same basic structure for all of them. The unmanifest domain involves the remote past and the future, as well as the world of desires, thought, and life forces. The set of verb forms dealing with this domain are consistent for all of these areas, and are different from the manifested ones. Also, there are no words for hours, minutes, or days of the week.

the sapir whorf hypothesis reflects

Native Hopi speakers often had great difficulty adapting to life in the English speaking world when it came to being “on time” for work or other events. It is simply not how they had been conditioned to behave with respect to time in their Hopi world, which followed the phases of the moon and the movements of the sun. In a book about the Abenaki who lived in Vermont in the mid-1800s, Trudy Ann Parker described their concept of time, which very much resembled that of the Hopi and many of the other Native American tribes. “They called one full day a sleep, and a year was called a winter. Each month was referred to as a moon and always began with a new moon. An Indian day wasn’t divided into minutes or hours. It had four time periods—sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight. Each season was determined by the budding or leafing of plants, the spawning of fish or the rutting time for animals. Most Indians thought the white race had been running around like scared rabbits ever since the invention of the clock.” [1]

The lexicon, or vocabulary, of a language is an inventory of the items a culture talks about and has categorized in order to make sense of the world and deal with it effectively. For example, modern life is dictated for many by the need to travel by some kind of vehicle—cars, trucks, SUVs, trains, buses, etc. We therefore have thousands of words to talk about them, including types of vehicles, models, brands, or parts.

the sapir whorf hypothesis reflects

The most important aspects of each culture are similarly reflected in the lexicon of its language. Among the societies living in the islands of Oceania in the Pacific, fish have great economic and cultural importance. 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, in Palau there are about 1,000 fish species and Palauan fishermen knew, long before biologists existed, details about the anatomy, behavior, growth patterns and habitat of most of them—in many cases far more than modern biologists know even today. Much of fish behavior is related to the tides and the phases of the moon. Throughout Oceania, the names given to certain days of the lunar months reflect the likelihood of successful fishing. For example, in the Caroline Islands, the name for the night before the new moon is  otolol , which means “to swarm.” The name indicates that the best fishing days cluster around the new moon. In Hawai`i and Tahiti two sets of days have names containing the particle  `ole  or  `ore ; one occurs in the first quarter of the moon and the other in the third quarter. The same name is given to the prevailing wind during those phases. The words mean “nothing,” because those days were considered bad for fishing as well as planting.

Parts of Whorf’s hypothesis, known as linguistic relativity were controversial from the beginning, and still are among some linguists. Yet Whorf’s ideas now form the basis for an entire sub-field of cultural anthropology: cognitive or psychological anthropology. A number of studies have been done that support Whorf’s ideas. Linguist George Lakoff’s work looks at the pervasive existence of metaphors in everyday speech that can be said to predispose a speaker’s world view and attitudes on a variety of human experiences. [2] 

the sapir whorf hypothesis reflects

A metaphor is an expression in which one kind of thing is understood and experienced in terms of another entirely unrelated thing; the metaphors in a language can reveal aspects of the culture of its speakers. Take, for example, the concept of an argument. In logic and philosophy, an argument is a discussion involving differing points of view, or a debate. But the conceptual metaphor in American culture can be stated as ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in many expressions of the everyday language of American speakers: I won the argument. He shot down every point I made. They attacked every argument we made. Your point is right on target. I had a fight with my boyfriend last night. In other words, we use words appropriate for discussing war when we talk about arguments, which are certainly not real war. But we actually think of arguments as a verbal battle that often involve anger, and even violence, which then structures how we argue.

the sapir whorf hypothesis reflects

To illustrate that this concept of argument is not universal, Lakoff suggests imagining a culture where an argument is not something to be won or lost, with no strategies for attacking or defending, but rather as a dance where the dancers’ goal is to perform in an artful, pleasing way. No anger or violence would occur or even be relevant to speakers of this language, because the metaphor for that culture would be ARGUMENT IS DANCE.

[1] Trudy Ann Parker, Aunt Sarah,  Woman of the Dawnland  (Lancaster, NH, Dawnland Publications 1994), 56.

[2] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson,  Metaphors We Live By  (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 4-5.

  • Linguistic Relativity: The Whorf Hypothesis, in the Language Variation: Sociolinguistics section of Chapter 4, Language. Authored by : Nina Brown, Thomas McIlwraith, Laura Tubelle de Gonzalez. Provided by : The Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges (SACC). Located at : . Project : Perspectives: An Open Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition. License : CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial
  • image of Hopi dwelling. Authored by : Eric Simon. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
  • image of empty barrels. Authored by : Hafis Fox. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
  • image of earth, sun, moon, and tree, showing day and night. Authored by : Dirk Rabe. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
  • image of children fishing. Authored by : Sasin Tipchai. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
  • image of two people facing away from one another/disagreement. Authored by : Fxq19910504. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
  • image of two people dancing. Authored by : ArtTower. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved

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Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

by Anais Bartell | Mar 10, 2023 | Interesting | 0 comments

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

Let’s explore the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis‌. We will also review the examples, evolution, and essential aspects of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis.

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis sounds like a complex concept best left for discussion among academics. P eople interested in language could get into a heated debate.

But “Sapir Whorf” is much more than that!

Let’s start with a simple question. Can language affect the way we think? There are plenty of theories and hypotheses for and against it.

Edward Sapir introduced the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in 1929, later advanced by Benjamin Whorf. 

Worldwide, people speak over seven thousand languages. All of them have distinct sounds, vocabulary, and structures.

And we know language is a significant part of our life. Will it affect the way we think? Let’s try to explore that‌.

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis Definition

Before diving deep for in-depth analysis, let’s first understand the definition of the hypothesis.


The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis supports linguistic relativity. That suggests the structure and vocabulary of the particular language will influence or determine the overall perception and cognition of the native speakers of that specific language .

That’s why Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is also known as the concept of linguistic relativity . 

What is Sapir Whorf Hypothesis?

What is Sapir Whorf Hypothesis?

The Sapir Whorf hypothesis states that how we perceive language at least strongly influences the word we speak. Proponents of this idea believe the language we speak governs our perception. And those who think languages are more or less arbitrary and all humans conceptualise things similarly.

It is a fantastic and appealing idea. It makes sense. Language limits our thoughts and perception if we have to encode them. Well, predictably, things are more complex than that.

Interesting arguments exist on both sides. Some are more compelling than others. The question is still debatable. However, the linguists and cognitive scientists most involved in this idea have not rejected it. But they are sceptical.

Summary of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

Summary of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

In summary, the hypothesis suggests the language person speaks determines or impacts their thinking or worldview. A particular language’s grammatical and lexical structure significantly affects the cognition of the people using the language.

We can see the relationship between language & culture according to the hypothesis. The culture of any demographic society is the set of beliefs and values about how they experience and perceive the world.

So, each unique culture will have different languages or varieties. As culture is specific to each group, it will develop linguistic structures and special words to express the phenomena that persist in their culture.

So, according to Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, as different cultures use different languages or have distinct linguistic categories, they will perceive the world differently. The hypothesis further claimed this phenomenon is mutually linked and impossible to separate. 

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The Origin of Hypothesis

The Origin of Hypothesis

The idea of languages influencing our thought is very ancient. It was discussed by Plato, St Augustine and the German Romantic philosophers long before Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf made a name for themselves as linguists.

Sapir became well known for his efforts towards classifying Native American languages, and his ideas started the theory later solidified by Whorf.

We also know the theory as Whorfianism. It reflects Whorf’s influence on its creation more accurately . Sapir suggests tentatively because different languages represent the world differently. It would follow that the speakers of other languages would also perceive the world differently.

Whorf, years later and continuing to study Native American languages, took the idea further. His most famous work was with the Hopi people, and several features of their language led to Whorf stating the hypothesis in its most potent form.

What is an Example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Understanding the hypothesis and what it states is one thing, and how it works is another. Let’s see a few examples to illustrate the hypothesis you want to convey.

Can you imagine the INUIT – indigenous people from Alaska and the Arctic got more than a hundred different words for the snow? This theory has been circulated for years, but it is an exaggeration. 

A hundred words for the snow is too high, but INUIT uses around 40-50 words to refer to snow. That depends upon the types and uses. Here are a few examples:

  • Wanik : falling snow
  • Aniu : snow used to make drinking water
  • Aputi : snow on the ground

However, other cultures don’t have even thirty words to describe snow. It is because INUIT got a more critical understanding and in-depth perception of snow and its forms.

You must have heard the word “hygge” before, probably in the bookshops or on television. “hygge” is a Danish and Norwegian word with a complex meaning.

It refers to the feeling of contentment, well-being, cosiness, and quality of being comfortably friendly and lively.

However, people from other countries and demography might be familiar with this word. But, in English, no single word describes the same feeling.

We can suggest a few words in English like – cosy, warm or content, but they do not convey the real meaning of “hygge.”

With the word “hygge”, the Danish and Norwegian people describe their feeling more acutely and with a specific perception.

Here, you can explore everything about the Leicester Pronunciation .

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Evaluation

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Evaluation

Now you understand the Sapir Whorf Theory well enough and have also gone through some examples. Let’s move to the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis evaluation.

The dichotomy exists within the theory. It means the hypothesis is divided into two parts. The Sapir Whorf is often talked about as its stronger or weaker parts. What does it mean?

Within the linguistic relativity hypothesis, there are two sub-categories: 

  •   linguistic determinism (stronger) 
  • linguistic relativism (weaker)

So, it will answer our subsequent query, what are the components of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

What are the Two Main Points of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis deals with two major components, which are:

Linguistic Determinism  

If something is reductionist, it will take a challenging or complex idea and analyse it in terms of its smallest components. It can lead to inaccurate or over-generalized conclusions. And it will not properly reflect the idea being analysed.

It is the stronger perception of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, which states that cognition is determined by the language the person speaks. The assumption made using this theory is that language provides us with the reason and the way we think.

Every country and culture has different beliefs and values because of the language they utilize. The demography that does not have the language to describe a particular phenomenon, idea, or concept is possible because of the language.

You must note that linguistic determinism is usually considered reductionist and incorrect in modern times because it does not count individual differences and subjective experiences. We will talk more about it later in our coming sections.

Linguistic Relativism  

It is the weaker and less intense version of linguistic determinism. It states that the person using the language influences their perception but does not define it.

It is also sometimes known as the Whorfian Hypothesis, which proposes that language properties affect the structure and content of thoughts and, finally, how humans perceive reality and experience. However, it does not define it.

Linguistic relativism gives an individual much more credit than linguistic determinism. As it allows for the idea, people can still understand the concept if they don’t have specific language to describe it.  

For example, let’s move to the word “hygge” again. English-speaking people can still understand or experience the concept of hygge even if they don’t have any words to describe it.

Linguistic relativism is more widely accepted than linguistic determinism.

What Experts Say in Favor of the Hypothesis

What Experts Say in Favor of the Hypothesis

The way the Hopi language grammaticalises time is another debate in linguistics. However, Whorf identified an inability to describe ‘time’ in Hopi grammar. It lived on famously in an urban legend that the Hopi ‘do not have a concept of time’, but this is not exactly what was suggested.

Whorf’s idea was that it would be illogical to think that Hopi perceives the passing of time in the same way as English speakers, without the same grammar and vocabulary to describe it. He described some aspects of their culture and behaviour to support this, although not in the sort of detail a serious linguist would demand.

More compelling evidence came from an experiment by researcher Jules Davidoff. The Himba tribe of Namibia has a language with no word for blue or a distinction between blue and green.

During the experiment, members of the Himba saw 11 green squares and one blue. Researchers asked them to pick out different ones. Most could not pick out the blue square; the rest found it more complex than anticipated.

It clearly shows language influences how we see the world, surpassing culture and affecting cognition and perception.

What Experts Say Against The Hypothesis

An entire, essential field of linguistics opposes the Sapir Whorf hypothesis – that of Universal Grammar. Noam Chomsky did not develop his ideas directly from the hypothesis, but his belief that language is a primary evolved. Individual faculty of the human brain also suggests that we all conceptualise the world under a ‘universal grammar’ and that the languages we speak. However, wildly differing structures are all essentially arbitrary and do not affect cognition – instead, it is cognition that affects language.

While still a controversial idea, Universal Grammar is a core concept in linguists. It is something all its students learn and discuss.

The most compelling argument for Universal Grammar is how infants very quickly and seemingly effortlessly learn languages that adults cannot. It suggests that language acquisition is a faculty built into the human brain and not simply a by-product of other intelligence kinds.

But there are more simple and direct reasons for being sceptical about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Whorf was very sloppy in providing evidence for his claims, and no one serious about the science of language sees his research as being thorough enough to deserve respect. And the experiment involving the Himba tribe, featured in a 2011 BBC documentary, has since become somewhat elusive – search for reliable scientific papers on the matter, and you will come up short.

Linguists in the public eye, such as John McWhorter, Steven Pinker and Geoffrey Pullum, all treat the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with a gentle sense of ridicule. Although we should not always trust the arguments from authority, these people know what they are talking about.

In fairness, the hypothesis has not been rejected in its entirety. Small, very small, perceptual differences have been recorded in reliable tests between speakers of different languages. However, the differences are negligible enough to suggest that Sapir-Whorf is not the best way to understand human perception’s tough problem. 

The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis suggests language influences cognition & thinking and can alter a person’s worldview. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, in different periods, developed it.

The hypothesis presents two underlying theories, which are – linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism. Linguistic relativism takes a practical approach and suggests that the use of language may influence thinking but does not define it.

However, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is criticized because it is reductionist, not transferrable to all languages, & cannot be proven in terms of causality.

We hope you enjoyed this write-up. Stay connected with us for more such informative and educational blogs.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you explain sapir whorf's theory.

We also know Sapir Whorf’s theory as the linguistic relativity hypothesis. It suggests that the use of language affects or determines the cognition, thinking, and overall worldview of the speaker.

Why is Sapir Whorf Hypothesis discredited?

The hypothesis is reductionist and lacks transferability and provable causality. That means it is not held in as high esteem as when it was first proposed.

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  • Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Since its inception in the 1920s and 1930s, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has caused controversy and spawned research in a variety of disciplines including linguistics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and education.

                              Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf brought attention to the relationship between language, thought, and culture. Neither of them formally wrote the hypothesis nor supported it with empirical evidence, but through a thorough study of their writings about linguistics, researchers have found two main ideas.

  • a theory of linguistic determinism that states that the language you speak determines the way that you will interpret the world around you.
  • a weaker theory of linguistic relativism that states that language merely influences your thoughts about the real world.

Edward Sapir studied the research of Wilhelm von Humboldt. About one hundred years before Sapir published his linguistic theories, Humboldt wrote in Gesammelte Werke a strong version of linguistic determinism:

“Man lives in the world about him principally, indeed exclusively, as language presents it to him.”

Sapir took this idea and expanded on it. Although he did not always support this firm hypothesis, his writings state that there is clearly a connection between language and thought.

“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression in their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection: 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. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached…Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

…from The Status of Linguistics as a Science (1929)

Benjamin Lee Whorf was Sapir’s student. Whorf devised the weaker theory of linguistic relativity:

“We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe…”

“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.”

…from Science and Linguistics (1940/1956)

Both Sapir and Whorf agreed that it is our culture that determines our language, which in turn determines the way that we categorize our thoughts about the world and our experiences in it.

For more than fifty years researchers have tried to design studies that will support or refute this hypothesis. Support for the strong version has been weak because it is virtually impossible to test one’s world view without using language. Support for the weaker version has been minimal.

Problems with the hypothesis begin when one tries to discern exactly what the hypothesis is stating. Penn notes that the hypothesis is stated “more and less strongly in different places in Sapir’s and Whorf’s writings” (1972:13). At some points, Sapir and Whorf appear to support the strong version of the hypothesis and at others they only support the weak version. Alford (1980) also notes that neither Sapir nor Whorf actually named any of their ideas about language and cognition the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This name only appeared after their deaths. This has lead to a wide interpretation of what researchers consider to be the one and only hypothesis.

Another problem with the hypothesis is that it requires a measurement of human thought. Measuring thought and one’s world view is nearly impossible without the confounding influence of language, another of the variables being studied. Researchers settle for the study of behaviour as a direct link to thought.

If one is to believe the strong version of linguistic determinism, one also has to agree that thought is not possible without language. What about the pre-linguistic thought of babies? How can babies acquire language without thought? Also, where did language come from? In the linguistic determinist’s view, language would have to be derived from a source outside the human realm because thought is impossible without language and before language there would have been no thought.

Supporters of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis must acknowledge that their study of language in the “real world” is not without doubt if their language influences how they categorize what they seem to experience. Penn writes, “In short, if one believes in linguistic relativity, one finds oneself in the egocentric quandary, unable to make assertions about reality because of doubting one’s own ability to correctly describe reality” (1972:33).

Yet another problem with the hypothesis is that languages and linguistic concepts are highly translatable. Under linguistic determinism, a concept in one language would not be understood in a different language because the speakers and their world views are bound by different sets of rules. Languages are in fact translatable and only in select cases of poetry, humour and other creative communications are ideas “lost in the translation.”

One final problem researchers have found with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is Whorf’s lack of empirical support for his linguistic insights. Whorf uses language nuances to prove vast differences between languages and then expects his reader to infer those differences in thought and behaviour. Schlesinger attacks Whorf’s flimsy thesis support: “…the mere existence of such linguistic diversities is insufficient evidence for the parallelist claims of a correspondence between language on the one hand and cognition and culture, on the other, and for the determinist claim of the latter being determined by the former” (1991:18). Schlesinger also fails to see the connection between Whorf’s linguistic evidence and any cultural or cognitive data. “Whorf occasionally supplies the translations from a foreign language into English, and leaves it to the good faith of the reader to accept the conclusion that here must have been a corresponding cognitive or cultural phenomenon” (1991:27).

One infamous example Whorf used to support his theory was the number of words the Inuit people have for ‘snow.’ He claimed that because snow is a crucial part of their everyday lives and that they have many different uses for snow that they perceive snow differently than someone who lives in a less snow-dependent environment. Pullum has since dispelled this myth in his book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (1991). He shows that while the Inuit use many different terms for snow, other languages transmit the same ideas using phrases instead of single words.

Despite all these problems facing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, there have been several studies performed that support at least the weaker linguistic relativity hypothesis. In 1954, Brown and Lenneberg tested for colour codability, or how speakers of one language categorize the colour spectrum and how it affects their recognition of those colours. Penn writes, “Lenneberg reports on a study showing how terms of colours influence the actual discrimination. English-speaking subjects were better able to re-recognize those hues which are easily named in English. This finding is clearly in support of the limiting influence of linguistic categories on cognition” (1972:16).

Schlesinger explains the path taken in this study from positive correlation to support for linguistic relativity: “…if codability of colour affected recognisability, and if languages differed in codability, then recognisability is a function of the individual’s language” (1991:27)

Lucy and Shweder’s colour memory test (1979) also supports the linguistic relativity hypothesis. If a language has terms for discriminating between colour then actual discrimination/perception of those colours will be affected. Lucy and Shweder found that influences on colour recognition memory is mediated exclusively by basic colour terms–a language factor.

Kay and Kempton’s language study (1984) found support for linguistic relativity. They found that language is a part of cognition. In their study, English speakers’ perceptions were distorted in the blue-green area while speakers from Tarahumara–who lack a blue-green distinction–showed no distortion. However, under certain conditions they found that universalism of colour distinction can be recovered.

Peterson and Siegal’s “Sally doll” test (1995) was not intended to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis specifically, but their findings support linguistic relativity in a population who at the time had not yet been considered for testing–deaf children. Peterson and Siegal’s experiment with deaf children showed a difference in the constructed reality of deaf children with deaf parents and deaf children with hearing parents, especially in the realm of non-concrete items such as feelings and thoughts.

Most recently, Wassman and Dasen’s Balinese language test (1998) found differences in how the Balinese people orient themselves spatially to that of Westerners. They found that the use of an absolute reference system based on geographic points on the island in the Balinese language correlates to the significant cultural importance of these points to the people. They questioned how language affects the thinking of the Balinese people and found moderate linguistic relativity results.

There are, on the other hand, several studies that dispute the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Most of these studies favour universalism over relativism in the realm of linguistic structure and function. For example, Osgood ‘s common meaning system study found that “human beings the world over, no matter what their language or culture, do share a common meaning system, do organize experience along similar symbolic dimensions” (1963:33)

In his universalism studies, Greenberg came to the conclusion that “agreement in the fundamentals of human behaviour among speakers of radically diverse languages far outweighs the idiosyncratic differences to be expected from a radical theory of linguistic relativity” (1963:125).

Alford ‘s interpretation of Whorf shows that Whorf never intended for perception of the colour spectrum to be used to defend his principle of linguistic relativity. Alford states, “In fact, he is quite clear in stating that perception is clearly distinct from conception and cognition, or language-related thinking” (1980).

Even Dr. Roger Brown , who was one of the first researchers to find empirical support for the hypothesis, now argues that there is much more evidence pointing toward cognitive universalism rather than linguistic relativity (Schlesinger 1991:26).

Berlin and Kay’s colour study (1969) found universal focus colours and differences only in the boundaries of colours in the spectrum. They found that regardless of language or culture, eleven universal colour foci emerge. Underlying apparent diversity in colour vocabularies, these universal foci remain recognizable. Even in languages which do not discriminate to eleven basic colours, speakers are nonetheless able to sort colour chips based on the eleven focus colours.

Davies ‘ cross-cultural colour sorting test (1998) found an obvious pattern in the similarity of colour sorting behaviour between speakers of English which has eleven basic colours, Russian which has twelve (they distinguish two blues), and Setswana which has only five (grue=green-blue). Davies concluded that the data showed strong universalism.

Culture influences the structure and functions of a group’s language, which in turn influences the individual’s interpretations of reality. Whorf saw language and culture as two inseparable sides of a single coin. According to Alford, “Whorf sensed something ‘chicken-and-egg-y’ about the language-culture interaction phenomenon” (1980). Indeed, deciding which came first the language or the culture is impossible to discern. Schlesinger notes that Whorf recognized two directions of influence–from culture to language and vice versa. However, according to Schlesinger, Whorf argues that “since grammar is more resistant to change than culture, the influence from language to culture is predominant” (1991:17).

Language reinforces cultural patterns through semantics, syntax and naming. Grammar and the forms of words show hierarchical importance of something to a culture. However, the common colour perception tests are not strongly linked to cultural experience. Schlesinger agrees: “Whorf made far-reaching claims about the pervasive effects of language on the mental life of a people, and all that experimental psychologists managed to come up with were such modest results as the effect of the vocabulary of a language on the discriminability of colour chips” (1991:30).

In 1955, Dr. James Cooke Brown attempted to separate language and culture to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He suggested the creation of a new language–one not bound to any particular culture – to distinguish the causes from the effects of language, culture, and thought. He called this artificial language LOGLAN, which is short for Logical Language. According to Riner, LOGLAN was designed as an experimental language to answer the question: “In what ways is human thought limited and directed by the language in which one thinks?” (1990).

Today with the help of the Internet, many people around the world are learning LOGLAN. Riner appears positive in the continuing work with LOGLAN to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: “As far as we can yet know, LOGLAN can accommodate precisely and unambiguously the native ways of saying things in any natural language. In fact, because it is logically rigorous, LOGLAN forces the speaker to make the metaphysical (cultural, worldview) premises in and of the natural language explicit in rendering the thought into (disambiguated) LOGLAN. Those assumptions, made explicit, become propositions that are open for critical review and amendment–so not only can the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis be tested, but its details can be investigated with LOGLAN” (1990).

The linguistic relativity principle, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis [1] is the idea that differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it. A strong version of the hypothesis holds that language determines thought that linguistic categories limits and determines cognitive categories. A weaker version states that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour.

The idea was first clearly expressed by 19th century national romantic thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt who saw language as the expression of the spirit of a nation. The early 20th century school of American Anthropology headed by Franz Boas and Edward Sapir also embraced the idea. Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf came to be seen as the primary proponent of the hypothesis, because he published observations of how he perceived linguistic differences to have consequences in human cognition and behaviour. Whorf’s ideas were widely criticised, and Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg decided to put them to the test. They reformulated Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity as a testable hypothesis, now called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and conducted experiments designed to find out whether color perception varies between speakers of languages that classified colors differently. As the study of the universal nature of human language and cognition came in to focus in the 1960s the idea of linguistic relativity fell out of favor. A 1969 study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay showed that colour terminology is subject to universal semantic constraints, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was seen as completely discredited.

From the late 1980s a new school of linguistic relativity scholars have examined the effects of differences in linguistic categorization on cognition, finding broad support for weak versions of the hypothesis in experimental contexts. [2] Effects of linguistic relativity have been shown particularly in the domain of spatial cognition and in the social use of language, but also in the field of colour perception. Recent studies have shown that colour perception is particularly prone to linguistic relativity effects when processed in the left brain hemisphere, suggesting that this brain half relies more on language than the right one. [3] Currently a balanced view of linguistic relativity is espoused by most linguists holding that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes in non-trivial ways but that other processes are better seen as subject to universal factors. Current research is focused on exploring the ways in which language influences thought and determining to what extent. [2] The principle of linguistic relativity and the relation between language and thought has also received attention in varying academic fields from Philosophy to Psychology and Anthropology , and it has also inspired works of fiction and the invention of constructed languages .

The idea that language and thought are intertwined goes back to the classical civilizations, but in the history of European philosophy the relation was not seen as fundamental. St. Augustine for example held the view that language was merely labels applied to already existing concepts. [4] Others held the opinion that language was but a veil covering up the eternal truths hiding them from real human experience. For Immanuel Kant , language was but one of several tools used by humans to experience the world. In the late 18th and early 19th century the idea of the existence of different national characters, or “ Volksgeister “, of different ethnic groups was the moving force behind the German school of national romanticism and the beginning ideologies of ethnic nationalism.

In 1820 Wilhelm von Humboldt connected the study of language to the national romanticist program by proposing the view that language is the very fabric of thought, that is that thoughts are produced as a kind of inner dialog using the same grammar as the thinker’s native language. [5] This view was part of a larger picture in which the world view of an ethnic nation, their “ Weltanschauung “, was seen as being faithfully reflected in the grammar of their language. Von Humboldt argued that languages with an inflectional morphological type , such as German, English and the other Indo-European languages were the most perfect languages and that accordingly this explained the dominance of their speakers over the speakers of less perfect languages.

The German scientist Wilhelm von Humboldt declared in 1820:

The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world. [5]

The idea that some languages were naturally superior to others and that the use of primitive languages maintained their speakers in intellectual poverty was widespread in the early 20th century. The American linguist William Dwight Whitney for example actively strove to eradicate the native American languages arguing that their speakers were savages and would be better off abandoning their languages and learning English and adopting a civilized way of life. [6] The first anthropologist and linguist to challenge this view was Franz Boas who was educated in Germany in the late 19th century where he received his doctorate in physics. [7] While undertaking geographical research in northern Canada he became fascinated with the Inuit people and decided to become an ethnographer. In contrast to Humboldt, Boas always stressed the equal worth of all cultures and languages, and argued that there was no such thing as primitive languages, but that all languages were capable of expressing the same content albeit by widely differing means. Boas saw language as an inseparable part of culture and he was among the first to require of ethnographers to learn the native language of the culture being studied, and to document verbal culture such as myths and legends in the original language.

According to Franz Boas:

It does not seem likely […] that there is any direct relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak, except in so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the state of the culture, but not in so far as a certain state of the culture is conditioned by the morphological traits of the language.” [8]

Boas’ student Edward Sapir reached back to the Humboldtian idea that languages contained the key to understanding the differing world views of peoples. In his writings he espoused the viewpoint that because of the staggering differences in the grammatical systems of languages no two languages were ever similar enough to allow for perfect translation between them. Sapir also thought because language represented reality differently, it followed that the speakers of different languages would perceive reality differently. According to Edward Sapir:

No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. [9]

On the other hand, Sapir explicitly rejected pure linguistic determinism , by stating that:

It would be naïve to imagine that any analysis of experience is dependent on pattern expressed in language.

While Sapir never made a point of studying how languages affected the thought processes of their speakers the notion of linguistic relativity lay inherent in his basic understanding of language, and it would be taken up by his student Benjamin Lee Whorf .

More than any other linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf has become associated with what he himself called “the principle of linguistic relativity”. Instead of merely assuming that language influences the thought and behavior of its speakers (after Humboldt and Sapir ) he looked at Native American languages and attempted to account for the ways in which differences in grammatical systems and language use affected the way their speakers perceived the world. Whorf has been criticized by many, often pointing to his ‘amateur’ status, thereby insinuating that he was unqualified and could thereby be dismissed. However, his not having a degree in linguistics cannot be taken to mean that he was linguistically incompetent. Indeed, John Lucy writes “despite his ‘amateur’ status, Whorf’s work in linguistics was and still is recognized as being of superb professional quality by linguists”. [11] Still, detractors such as Eric Lenneberg , Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker have criticized him for not being sufficiently clear in his formulation of how he meant languages influences thought, and for not providing actual proof of his assumptions. Most of his arguments were in the form of examples that were anecdotal or speculative in nature, and functioned as attempts to show how “exotic” grammatical traits were connected to what were apparently equally exotic worlds of thought. In Whorf’s words:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. [12]

Among Whorf’s well known examples of linguistic relativity are examples of instances where an indigenous language has several terms for a concept that is only described with one word in English and other European languages (Whorf used the acronym SAE “ Standard Average European ” to allude to the rather similar grammatical structures of the well-studied European languages in contrast to the greater diversity of the less-studied languages). One of Whorf’s examples of this was the supposedly many words for ‘snow’ in the Inuit language , which has later been shown to be a misrepresentation [13] but also for example how the Hopi language describes water with two different words for drinking water in a container versus a natural body of water. These examples of polysemy served the double purpose of showing that indigenous languages sometimes made more fine grained semantic distinctions than European languages and that direct translation between two languages, even of seemingly basic concepts like snow or water, is not always possible.

Another example in which Whorf attempted to show that language use affects behavior came from his experience in his day job as a chemical engineer working for an insurance company as a fire inspector [13] . On inspecting a chemical plant he once observed that the plant had two storage rooms for gasoline barrels, one for the full barrels and one for the empty ones. He further noticed that while no employees smoked cigarettes in the room for full barrels no-one minded smoking in the room with empty barrels, although this was potentially much more dangerous due to the highly flammable vapors that still existed in the barrels. He concluded that the use of the word ’empty’ in connection to the barrels had led the workers to unconsciously regarding them as harmless, although consciously they were probably aware of the risk of explosion from the vapors. This example was later criticized by Lenneberg [14] as not actually demonstrating the causality between the use of the word empty and the action of smoking, but instead being an example of circular reasoning . Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct ridiculed this example, claiming that this was a failing of human sight rather than language.

Whorf’s most elaborate argument for the existence of linguistic relativity regarded what he believed to be a fundamental difference in the understanding of time as a conceptual category among the Hopi. [15] He argued that in contrast to English and other SAE languages, the Hopi language does not treat the flow of time as a sequence of distinct, countable instances, like “three days” or “five years” but rather as a single process and consequentially it does not have nouns referring to units of time. He proposed that this view of time was fundamental in all aspects of Hopi culture and explained certain Hopi behavioral patterns.

Whorf died in 1941 at age 44 and left behind him a number of unpublished papers. His line of thought was continued by linguists and anthropologists such as Harry Hoijer and Dorothy D. Lee who both continued investigations into the effect of language on habitual thought, and George L. Trager who prepared a number of Whorf’s left-behind papers for publishing. Hoijer, who was one of Sapir’s students, was also the first to use the term “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” about the complex of ideas about linguistic relativity expressed in the work of those two linguists. [16] The most important event for the dissemination of Whorf’s ideas to a larger public was the publication in 1956 of his major writings on the topic of linguistic relativity in a single volume titled “Language, Thought and Reality” edited by J. B. Carroll.

In 1953 psychologist Eric Lenneberg published a detailed criticism of the line of thought that had been fundamental for Sapir and Whorf. He criticized Whorf’s examples from an objectivist view of language holding that languages are principally meant to represent events in the real world and that even though different languages express these ideas in different ways, the meanings of such expressions and therefore the thoughts of the speaker are equivalent. He argued that when Whorf was describing in English how a Hopi speaker’s view of time was different, he was in fact translating the Hopi concept into English and therefore disproving the existence of linguistic relativity. He did not address the fact that Whorf was not principally concerned with translatability, but rather with how the habitual use of language influences habitual behavior. Whorf’s point was that while English speakers may be able to understand how a Hopi speaker thinks, they are not actually able to think in that way. [17]

Lenneberg’s main criticism of Whorf’s works was that he had never actually shown the causality between a linguistic phenomenon and a phenomenon in the realm of thought or behavior, but merely assumed it to be there. Together with his colleague, Roger Brown , Lenneberg proposed that in order to prove such a causality one would have to be able to directly correlate linguistic phenomena with behavior. They took up the task of proving or disproving the existence of linguistic relativity experimentally and published their findings in 1954.

Since neither Sapir nor Whorf had ever stated an actual hypothesis, Brown & Lenneberg formulated one based on a condensation of the different expressions of the notion of linguistic relativity in their works. They identified the two tenets of the Whorf thesis as (i) “the world is differently experienced and conceived in different linguistic communities” and (ii) “language causes a particular cognitive structure”. [18] These two tenets were later developed by Roger Brown into the so-called “weak” and “strong” formulation respectively:

1. Structural differences between language systems will, in general, be paralleled by nonlinguistic cognitive differences, of an unspecified sort, in the native speakers of the language. 2. The structure of anyone’s native language strongly influences or fully determines the worldview he will acquire as he learns the language. [19]

It is these two formulations of Roger Brown’s which have become widely known and attributed to Whorf and Sapir while in fact the second formulation, verging on linguistic determinism, was never advanced by either of them.

Since Brown & Lenneberg believed that the objective reality denoted by language was the same for speakers of all language, they decided to test how different languages codified the same message differently and whether differences in codification could be proven to affect behavior.

They designed a number of experiments involving the codification of colors. In their first experiment, they investigated whether it was easier for speakers of English to remember color shades for which they had a specific name than to remember colors that were not as easily definable by words. This allowed them to correlate the linguistic categorization directly to a non-linguistic task, that of recognizing and remembering colors. In a later experiment, speakers of two languages that categorize colors differently ( English and Zuni ) were asked to perform tasks of color recognition. In this way, it could be determined whether the differing color categories of the two speakers would determine their ability to recognize nuances within color categories. Brown & Lenneberg in fact found that Zuñi speakers who classify green and blue together as a single category did have trouble recognizing and remembering nuances within the green/blue category. Brown & Lenneberg’s study became the beginning of a tradition of investigation of the linguistic relativity through color terminology (see below).

Lenneberg was also one of the first cognitive scientists to begin development of the Universalist theory of language which was finally formulated by Noam Chomsky in the form of Universal Grammar , effectively arguing that all languages share the same underlying structure. The Chomskyan school also holds the belief that linguistic structures are largely innate and that what are perceived as differences between specific languages – the knowledge acquired by learning a language – are merely surface phenomena and do not affect cognitive processes that are universal to all human beings. This theory became the dominant paradigm in American linguistics from the 1960s through the 1980s and the notion of linguistic relativity fell out of favor and became even the object of ridicule. [20]

An example of the influence of universalist theory in the 1960s is the studies by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay who continued Lenneberg’s research in color terminology. Berlin and Kay studied color terminology formation in languages and showed clear universal trends in color naming. For example, they found that even though languages have different color terminologies, they generally recognize certain hues as more focal than others. They showed that in languages with few color terms, it is predictable from the number of terms which hues are chosen as focal colors, for example, languages with only three color terms always have the focal colors black, white and red. [21] The fact that what had been believed to be random differences between color naming in different languages could be shown to follow universal patterns was seen as a powerful argument against linguistic relativity. [22] Berlin and Kay’s research has since been criticized by relativists such as John A. Lucy , who has argued that Berlin and Kay’s conclusions were skewed by their insistence that color terms should encode only color information. [23] This, Lucy argues, made them blind to the instances in which color terms provided other information that might be considered examples of linguistic relativity. For more information regarding the universalism and relativism of color terms, see Universalism and relativism of color terminology .

Other universalist researchers dedicated themselves to dispelling other notions of linguistic relativity, often attacking specific points and examples given by Whorf. For example, Ekkehart Malotki’s monumental study of time expressions in Hopi presented many examples that challenged Whorf’s interpretation of Hopi language and culture as being “timeless” [24] .

Today many followers of the universalist school of thought still oppose the idea of linguistic relativity. For example, Steven Pinker argues in his book The Language Instinct that thought is independent of language, that language is itself meaningless in any fundamental way to human thought, and that human beings do not even think in “natural” language, i.e. any language that we actually communicate in; rather, we think in a meta-language, preceding any natural language, called “mentalese.” Pinker attacks what he calls “Whorf’s radical position,” declaring, “the more you examine Whorf’s arguments, the less sense they make.” [25]

Pinker and other universalist opponents of the linguistic relativity hypothesis have been accused by relativists of misrepresenting Whorf’s views and arguing against strawmen put up by themselves. [26]

Joshua Fishman argued that Whorf’s true position was for a long time largely overlooked by most linguists. In 1978, he suggested that Whorf was a ‘neo- Herderian champion’ [27] and in 1982, he proposed his ‘Whorfianism of the third kind’ in an attempt to refocus linguists’ attention on what he claimed was Whorf’s real interest, namely the intrinsic value of ‘little peoples’ and ‘little languages’. [28] Whorf himself had expressed the sentiment thus:

But to restrict thinking to the patterns merely of English […] is to lose a power of thought which, once lost, can never be regained. It is the ‘plainest’ English which contains the greatest number of unconscious assumptions about nature. […] We handle even our plain English with much greater effect if we direct it from the vantage point of a multilingual awareness. [29]

Where Brown’s weak version of the linguistic relativity hypothesis proposes that language influences thought and the strong version that language determines thought, Fishman’s ‘Whorfianism of the third kind’ proposes that language is a key to culture .

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, advances in cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics renewed interest in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. [30] One of those who adopted a more Whorfian approach was George Lakoff . He argued that language is often used metaphorically and that different languages use different cultural metaphors that reveal something about how speakers of that language think. For example, English employs metaphors likening time with money, whereas other languages may not talk about time in that fashion. Other linguistic metaphors may be common to most languages because they are based on general human experience, for example, metaphors likening up with good and bad with down . Lakoff also argues that metaphor plays an important part in political debates where it matters 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 his book Women, Fire and Dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind (1987), Lakoff reappraised the hypothesis of linguistic relativity and especially Whorf’s views about how linguistic categorization reflects and/or influences mental categories. He concluded that the debate on linguistic relativity had been confused and resultingly fruitless. He identified four parameters on which researchers differed in their opinions about what constitutes linguistic relativity. One parameter is the degree and depth of linguistic relativity. Some scholars believe that a few examples of superficial differences in language and associated behavior are enough to demonstrate the existence of linguistic relativity, while other contend that only deep differences that permeate the linguistic and cultural system suffice as proof. A second parameter is whether conceptual systems are to be seen as absolute or whether they can be expanded or exchanged during the life time of a human being. A third parameter is whether translatability is accepted as a proof of similarity or difference between concept systems or whether it is rather the actual habitual use of linguistic expressions that is to be examined. A fourth parameter is whether to view the locus of linguistic relativity as being in the language or in the mind. Lakoff concluded that since many of Whorf’s critics had criticized him using definitions of linguistic relativity that Whorf did not himself use, their criticisms were often ineffective.

The publication of the 1996 anthology Rethinking linguistic relativity edited by sociolinguist John J. Gumperz and psycholinguist Stephen C. Levinson marked the entrance to a new period of linguistic relativity studies and a new way of defining the concept that focused on cognitive as well as social aspects of linguistic relativity. The book included studies by cognitive linguists sympathetic to the hypothesis as well as some working in the opposing universalist tradition. In this volume, cognitive and social scientists laid out a new paradigm for investigations in linguistic relativity. Levinson presented research results documenting rather significant linguistic relativity effects in the linguistic conceptualization of spatial categories between different languages. Two separate studies by Melissa Bowerman and Dan I. Slobin treated the role of language in cognitive processes. Bowerman showed that certain cognitive processes did not use language to any significant extent and therefore could not be subject to effects of linguistic relativity. Slobin on the other hand, described another kind of cognitive process that he named “thinking for speaking” – the kind of processes in which perceptional data and other kinds of prelinguistic cognition are translated into linguistic terms for the purpose of communicating them to others. These, Slobin argues, are the kinds of cognitive process that are at the root of linguistic relativity.

Current researchers such as cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University believe that language influences thought, but in more limited ways than the broadest early claims. Exploring these parameters has sparked novel research that increases both scope and precision of prior examinations. Current studies of linguistic relativity are neither marked by the naive approach to exotic linguistic structures and their often merely presumed effect on thought that marked the early period, nor are they ridiculed and discouraged as in the universalist period. Instead of proving or disproving a theory, researchers in linguistic relativity now examine the interface between thought, language and culture, and describe the degree and kind of interrelatedness. Usually, following the tradition of Lenneberg, they use experimental data to back up their conclusions.

John Lucy has identified three main strands of research into linguistic relativity. [31] The first is what he calls the “structure centered” approach. This approach starts with observing a structural peculiarity in a language and goes on to examine its possible ramifications for thought and behavior. The first example of this kind of research is Whorf’s observation of discrepancies between the grammar of time expressions in Hopi and English. More recent research in this vein is the research made by John Lucy describing how usage of the categories of grammatical number and of numeral classifiers in the Mayan language Yucatec result in Mayan speakers classifying objects according to material rather than to shape as preferred by speakers of English. [32]

The second strand of research is the “domain centered” approach, in which a semantic domain is chosen and compared across linguistic and cultural groups for correlations between linguistic encoding and behavior. The main strand of domain centered research has been the research on color terminology, although this domain according to Lucy and admitted by color terminology researchers such as Paul Kay , is not optimal for studying linguistic relativity, because color perception, unlike other semantic domains, is known to be hard wired into the neural system and as such subject to more universal restrictions than other semantic domains. Since the tradition of research on color terminology is by far the largest area of research into linguistic relativity it is described below in its own section. Another semantic domain which has proven fruitful for studies of linguistic relativity is the domain of space. [33] Spatial categories vary greatly between languages and recent research has shown that speakers rely on the linguistic conceptualization of space in performing many quotidian tasks. Research carried out by Stephen C Levinson and other cognitive scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has reported three basic kinds of spatial categorization and while many languages use combinations of them some languages exhibit only one kind of spatial categorization and corresponding differences in behavior. For example the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr only uses absolute directions when describing spatial relations — the position of everything is described by using the cardinal directions. A speaker of Guugu yimithirr will define a person as being “north of the house”, while a speaker of English may say that he is “in front of the house” or “to the left of the house” depending on the speaker’s point of view. This difference makes Guugu yimithirr speakers better at performing some kinds of tasks, such as finding and describing locations in open terrain, whereas English speakers perform better in tasks regarding the positioning of objects relative to the speaker (For example telling someone to set the table putting forks to the right of the plate and knives to the left would be extremely difficult in Guugu yimithirr). [34]

The third strand of research is the “behavior centered” approach which starts by observing different behavior between linguistic groups and then proceeds to search for possible causes for that behavior in the linguistic system. This kind of approach was used by Whorf when he attributed the occurrence of fires at a chemical plant to the workers’ use of the word ’empty’ to describe the barrels containing only explosive vapors. One study in this line of research has been conducted by Bloom who noticed that speakers of Chinese had unexpected difficulties answering counter-factual questions posed to them in a questionnaire. After a study he concluded that this was related to the way in which counter-factuality is marked grammatically in the Chinese language. Another line of study by Frode Strømnes examined why Finnish factories had a higher occurrence of work related accidents than similar Swedish ones. He concluded that cognitive differences between the grammatical usage of Swedish prepositions and Finnish cases could have caused Swedish factories to pay more attention to the work process where Finnish factory organizers paid more attention to the individual worker. [35]

Other research of importance to the study of linguistic relativity has been Daniel Everetts studies of the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon . Everett observed several peculiarities in Pirahã culture that corresponded with linguistically rare features. The Pirahã for example have neither numbers nor color terms in the way those are normally defined, and correspondingly they don’t count or classify colors in the way other cultures do. Furthermore when Everett tried to instruct them in basic mathematics they proved unresponsive. Everett did not draw the conclusion that it was the lack of numbers in their language that prevented them from grasping mathematics, but instead concluded that the Pirahã had a cultural ideology that made them extremely reluctant to adopt new cultural traits, and that this cultural ideology was also the reason that certain linguistic features that were otherwise believed to be universal did not exist in their language. Critics have argued that if the test subjects are unable to count 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. [36] That is, it is the lack of need which explains both the lack of counting ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary.

The tradition of using the semantic domain of color names as an object for investigation of linguistic relativity began with Lenneberg and Roberts 1953 study of Zuni color terms and color memory, and Brown and Lennebergs 1954 study of English color terms and color memory. The studies showed a correlation between the availability of color terms for specific colors and the ease with which those colors were remembered in both speakers of Zuni and English. Researchers concluded that this had to do with properties of the focal colors having higher codability than less focal colors, and not with linguistic relativity effects. Berlin and Kay’s 1969 study of color terms across languages concluded that there are universal typological principles of color naming that are determined by biological factors with little or no room for relativity related effects. [37] This study sparked a long tradition of studies in to the typological universals of color terminology. Some researchers such as John A Lucy [38] , Barbara Saunders [39] and Stephen C Levinson [40] have argued that Berlin and Kays study does not in fact show that linguistic relativity in color naming is impossible, because of a number of basic unsupported assumptions in their study (such as whether all cultures in fact have a category of “color” that can be unproblematically defined and equated with the one found in Indo-European languages) and because of problems with their data stemming from those basic assumptions. Other researchers such as Robert E. Maclaury have continued investigation into the evolution of color names in specific languages refining the possibilities of basic color term inventories. Like Berlin and Kay, Maclaury found no significant room for linguistic relativity in this domain, but rather as Berlin and Kay concluded that the domain is governed mostly by physical-biological universals of human color perception. [41] [42]

“In traditional scholarship concerning the intellectual roots of the so-called Sapir -Whorf Hypothesis’ — a term perhaps first used by Harry Hoijer (1904-1976) in 1954 in a paper at a conference devoted to the subject, but probably made more widely known through John B. Carroll’s (b. 1916) posthumous edition of Benjamin Lee Whorf s papers in 1956 (cf page 27) — these are traced largely, but not exclusively, to German language theory of the 17th (e.g., Leibniz) through the early 19th century, which, in Humboldt’s version, connects the ‘inner form’ of a language with the particularity of a world view of the nation that speaks it. This traditional view (surveyed in Koerner 1992) has recently been challenged by Joseph (1996) and, where Whorf’s work in general is concerned, by Lee (1996) in her monograph treatment of Whorfs ‘theory complex’ (especially Chapter 3). In this short paper the argument is made that these seemingly opposite positions concerning intellectual indebtnedness are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that an allowance should he made for the presence, latent or keenly felt, of two distinct but at least loosely connected layers of influence discernible in the work of North American linguists and anthropologists studying indigenous languages from Whitney to Whorf and his followers. So while the first, perhaps more general and less explicit kind of influence (at least where Whorf is concerned) derives from a fairly long-standing tradition in German philosophy of language, appropriate room should definitely be given to the more immediate sources of the idea that one’s native language determines individual and cultural patterns of thought which Joseph (1996) has documented so carefully, this idea held by Herder and, notably, by Humboldt (which he dubs the ‘magic key’ view), whereby language is seen as embodying the national mind and unfolding in line with the Romantic concept of history, in contrast to the other version (dubbed by him ‘metaphysical garbage’), which envisions language developing within an evolutionary view of history and which is seen as introducing obstacles to logical thought. This latter view, Joseph holds, appears to have been commonplace in Cambridge analytical philosophy, represented most prominently by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), and in Viennese logical positivism, reflected in the Work of Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). Joseph identifies Charles Kay Ogden (1889- 1957) as the key link between Cambridge and Vienna, whose influential book of 1923 The Meaning of Meaning, co-authored with Ivor Armstrong Richards (1893-1979), subtitled “The influence of language on thought and of the science of symbolism”, contains, Joseph demonstrates, many of the positions held by both Whorf and Sapir.

According to Joseph (1996), Sapir’s positive review of the same year of Ogden and Richards’ influential book marks a turning point from his view of language as a cultural product (as in his 1921 book Language , which incidentally was one of the works criticized in Ogden and Richards) to a sort of template around which the rest of culture is structured, as argued in his “The Status of Linguistics as a Science” (1929), This paper, Joseph suggests, like others of Sapir’s writings from 1923 on, takes up the rhetoric of ‘metaphysical garbage’ almost exclusively. Whorf in turn, drawn by Sapir to structuralism from originally mystical interests in language – beginning with his discovery in 1924 of the quasi-Cabbalistic writings of Antoine Fahre d’Olivet (1768-1825), likewise takes up this ‘garbage’ line, interweaving it with ‘magic key’ only in the two years between Sapir’s death and his own. Joseph in his important, indeed ground-breaking study on the subject — also investigates other influences on Whorf, for instance the writings of the analytic philosopher Count Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), founder of the General Semantics movement in the United States. As a result, my own paper, like my previous research on the subject, can be regarded as dealing more with part of the general intellectual climate that informed American scholarship during much of the 19th and the early 20th century, than with most of the direct, textually traceable sources, of the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that Joseph had identified.” pp. 1-2

From: E. F. K. Koerner – Towards a ‘full pedigree’ of the ‘Sapir-Whorf hipothesys’. From Locke to Lucy . In: Explorations in linguistic relativity. Edited by Pütz Martin and Verspoor Marjolijn H.John Benjamins 2000. pp. 1-24

“Early in the twentieth century, American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) inaugurated an important expansion of scientific investigation of the languages of native North America. As part of a broad critique of nineteenth-century evolutionary arguments he stressed the equal value of each language type and their independence from race and cultural level. He argued that each language necessarily represents an implicit classification of experience, that these classifications vary across languages, but that such variation probably has little effect on thought or culture.

His student Edward Sapir (1884-1939) accepted the main thrust of Boas’ position but came to feel that the closely knit system of categories in a language could represent incommensurable analyses of experience with effects on speakers’ conceptual view points and aesthetic interpretations. Gestalt and psychoanalytic psychology and Sapir’s own literary efforts also played a role in his thinking on this issue. Sapir’s concern was not with linguistic form as such (for example, whether a language uses inflections or not), nor with linguistic content or meaning as such (for example, whether a language could refer to a particular referent), but rather with the formal organization of meaning characteristic of a language, the regular ways meanings are constructed (for example, grammatical categories and patterns of semantic composition). Despite the suggestiveness of his formulation, Sapir provided few specific illustrations of the sorts of influences he had in mind.

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), a gifted amateur linguist independently interested in these issues as they related to the nature of science, came into contact with Sapir in 1930 and began developing these views to a more systematic way. He analysed particular linguistic constructions, proposed mechanisms of influence, and provided empirical demonstrations of such influences on belief and behavior. However, his views on this issue are known to us largely through letters, unpublished manuscripts and popular pieces, which has led to considerable debate about his actual position. In this context, the one article on this issue prepared for a professional audience must be given special weight (see Whorf 1956). (1)Whorf argued that each language refers to an infinite variety of experiences with a finite array of formal categories (both lexical and grammatical) by trouping experiences together as analogically ‘the same’ for the purposes of speech. These categories also interrelate in a coherent way, reinforcing and complementing one another, so as to constitute an overall interpretation of experience. Languages vary considerably not only in the basic distinctions they recognize, but also in the assemblage of thesecategories into a coherent system of reference. Thus the system of categories which each language provides to its speakers is not a common, universal system, but one peculiar to the individual language, and one which makes possible a particular ‘fashion of speaking’.

But speakers tend to assume that the categories and distinctions of their language are natural, given by external reality. Further, speakers make the tacit error of assuming that elements of experience which are classed together on one or another criterion for the purposes of speech are similar in other respects as well. The crux of Whorf’s argument is that these linguistic categories are used as guides in habitual thought. When speakers attempt to interpret an experience in terms of a category available in their language they automatically involve the other meanings implicit in that particular category (analogy) and in the overall configuration of categories in which it is embedded. And speakers regard these other meanings as being intrinsic to the original experience rather than a product of linguistic analogy. Thus, language does not so much blind speakers to some obvious reality, but rather it suggests associations which are not necessarily entailed by experience. Ultimately, these shaping forces affect not only everyday habitual thought but also more sophisticated philosophical and scientific activity. In the absence of another language (natural or artificial) with which to talk about experience, speakers will be unlikely to recognize the conventional nature of their linguistically based understandings.”  

(1) “The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language” (1939) reprinted in B. L. Whorf Language, thought, and reality. Selected writings. Cambridge: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1956 pp. 134-159). 

From: John A. Lucy – Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – in: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy . Edited by Craig Edward. London, New York: Routledge 1998 pp. 471.

“The original idea, variously attributable to Humboldt, Boas, Sapir, Whorf, was that the semantic structures of different languages might be fundamentally incommensurable, with consequences for the way in which speakers of specific languages might think and act. On this view, language, thought, and culture are deeply interlocked, so that each language might be claimed to have associated with it a distinctive world view.

These ideas captured the imagination of a generation of anthropologists, psychologists, and linguists, as well as members of the general public. They had deep implications for the way anthropologists should conduct their business, suggesting that translational difficulties might lie at the heart of their discipline. However, the ideas seemed entirely and abruptly discredited by the rise of the cognitive sciences in the 1960s, which favoured a strong emphasis on the commonality of human cognition and its basis in human genetic endowment. This emphasis was strengthened by developments within linguistic anthropology, with the discovery of significant semantic universals in color terms, the structure of ethno-botanical nomenclature, and (arguably) kinship terms.

However, there has been a recent change of intellectual climate in psychology, linguistics, and other disciplines surrounding anthropology, as well as within linguistic anthropology, towards an intermediate position, in which more attention is paid to linguistic and cultural difference, such diversity being viewed within the context of what we have learned about universals (features shared by all languages and cultures). New work in developmental psychology, while acknowledging underlying universal bases, emphasizes the importance of the socio-cultural context of human development. Within sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology there has also been increasing attention to meaning and discourse, and concomitantly a growing appreciation of how interpretive differences can be rooted as much in the systematic uses of language as in its structure.”  

“The boldness of Whorf’s formulation prompted a succession of empirical studies in America in the 1950s and early 1960s aimed at elucidating and testing what now became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Anthropological and linguistic studies by Trager, Hoijer, Lee, Casagrande, and others have been well reviewed elsewhere (see Lucy Language diversity and thought. A reformulation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis  chapter 3; and this volume). These studies hardly touched on cognition, but in the same period a few psychologists (notably Lenneberg, Brown, Stefflre) did try to investigate the relation between lexical coding and memory, especially in the domain of color, and found some significant correlations (again see Lucy chapter 5). This line of work culminated, however, in the celebrated demonstration by Berlin & Kay (1969) of the language-independent saliency of “basic colors,” which was taken as a decisive anti-relativist finding, and effectively terminated this tradition of investigations into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. There followed a period in which Whorf’s own views in particular became the butt of extensive criticism.

It is clear from this background that the “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis in its classical form arose from deep historical roots but in a particular intellectual climate. Even though (it has been closely argued by Lucy op. cit.) the original hypothesis has never been thoroughly tested, the intellectual milieu had by the 1960s entirely changed. Instead of empiricism, we now have rationalistic assumptions. Instead of the basic tenets of structuralism, in which each linguistic or social system must be understood first in internal terms before comparison is possible, modern comparative work (especially in linguistics) tends to presume that one can isolate particular aspects or traits of a system (e.g. aspect or subjecthood) for comparison. The justification, such as it is, is that we now have the outlines of a universal structure for language and perhaps cognition, which provides the terms for comparison. It is true that the assumption of unconscious processes continues, but now the emphasis is on the unconscious nature of nearly all systematic information processing, so that the distinctive character of Whorf’s habitual thought has been submerged.

In this changed intellectual climate, and in the light of the much greater knowledge that we now have about both language and mental processing, it would be pointless to attempt to revive ideas about linguistic relativity in their original form. Nevertheless, there have been a whole range of recent intellectual shifts that make the ground more fertile for some of the original seeds to grow into new saplings. It is the purpose of this volume to explore the implications of some of these shifts in a number of different disciplines for our overall view of the relations between language, thinking, and society. 

From: John J. Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson – Rethinking linguistic relativity – Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996, pp. 2-3 and 6-7 (notes omitted).

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