Cognitive Linguistics

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

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In linguistics, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (SWH) states that there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it. Although it has come to be known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, it rather was an axiom underlying the work of linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and student Benjamin Whorf.


The position that language anchors thought (thinking is shabdanA or 'languaging') was argued cogently by Bhartrihari (6th c.AD) and was the subject of centuries of debate in the Indian linguistic tradition. Related notions in the West, such as the axiom that language has controlling effects upon thought, can be traced to Wilhelm von Humboldt's essay "Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium" (On the comparative study of languages), and the notion has been largely assimilated into Western thought. Karl Kerenyi began his 1976 English language translation of Dionysus with this passage:

"The interdependence of thought and speech makes it clear that languages are not so much a means of expressing truth that has already been established, but are a means of discovering truth that was previously unknown. Their diversity is a diversity not of sounds and signs but of ways of looking at the world."''

The origin of the SWH as a more rigorous examination of this familiar cultural perception can be traced back to the work of Franz Boas, the founder of anthropology in the United States. Boas was educated in Germany in the late 19th century at a time when scientists such as Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann were attempting to understand the physiology of sensation.

One important philosophical approach at the time was a revival of interest in the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant claimed that knowledge was the result of concrete cognitive work on the part of an individual person—reality ("sensuous intuition") was inherently in flux and understanding resulted when someone took that intuition and interpreted it via their "categories of the understanding." Different individuals may thus perceive the same noumenal reality as phenomenal instances of their different, individual concepts.

In the United States, Boas encountered Native American languages from many different linguistic families—all of which were quite different from the Semitic and Indo-European languages which most European scholars studied. Boas came to realize how greatly ways of life and grammatical categories could vary from one place to another. As a result he came to believe that the culture and lifeways of a people were reflected in the language that they spoke.

Sapir was one of Boas' star students. He furthered Boas' argument by noting that languages were systematic, formally complete systems. Thus, it was not this or that particular word that expressed a particular mode of thought or behavior, but that the coherent and systematic nature of language interacted at a wider level with thought and behavior. While his views changed over time, it seems that towards the end of his life Sapir came to believe that language did not merely mirror culture and habitual action, but that language and thought might in fact be in a relationship of mutual influence or perhaps even determination.

Whorf gave this idea greater precision by examining the particular grammatical mechanisms by which thought influenced language. He argued his point thus:

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language... all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated."
— (Language, Thought and Reality pp. 212–214).

Whorf's formulation of this "principle of linguistic relativity" is often stereotyped as a "prisonhouse" view of language in which one's thinking and behavior is completely and utterly shaped by one's language. While some people might make this "vulgar Whorfian" argument, Whorf himself sought merely to insist that thought and action were linguistically and socially mediated. In doing so he opposed what he called a "natural logic" position which he claimed believed "talking, or the use of language, is supposed only to 'express' what is essentially already formulated nonlinguistically" (Language, Thought and Reality p. 207). On this account, he argued, "thought does not depend on grammar but on laws of logic or reason which are supposed to be the same for all observers of the universe" (Language, Thought and Reality p. 208).

Whorf's close analysis of the differences between English and (in one famous instance) the Hopi language raised the bar for an analysis of the relationship between language, thought, and reality by relying on close analysis of grammatical structure, rather than a more impressionistic account of the differences between, say, vocabulary items in a language. For example, "Standard Average European" (SAE) – i.e., Western languages in general – tends to analyse reality as objects in space: the present and future are thought of as a "places", and time is a path linking them. A phrase like "three days" is grammatically equivalent to "three apples", or "three kilometres". Other languages, including many Native American languages, are oriented towards process. To monolingual speakers of such languages, the concrete/spatial metaphors of SAE grammar may make little sense. Whorf himself claimed that his work on the SWH was inspired by his insight that a Hopi speaker would find relativistic physics fundamentally easier to grasp than an SAE speaker would.

As a result of his status outside the academy Whorf's work on linguistic relativity, conducted largely in the late 1930s, did not become popular until the posthumous publication of his writings in the 1950s. In 1955, Dr. James Cooke Brown created the Loglan constructed language (Lojban, a reformed variant of Loglan, still exists as a living language) in order to test the hypothesis. However, no such experiment was ever conducted. Linguistic theories of the 1960s— such as those proposed by Noam Chomsky —focused on the innateness and universality of language. As a result Whorf's work fell out of favor. In the late 1980s and early 1990s advances in cognitive psychology and anthropological linguistics renewed interest in the SWH. An example of a recent Chomskian approach to this issue is Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct. Pinker argues from a contravening school of thought that holds that some sort of universal grammar underlies all language. The most extreme proponents of this theory, such as Pinker, argue that thought is independent of language, and that language is itself meaningless in any fundamental way to human thought, and that human beings do not even think in what is called “natural” language, which is to say in any of the languages that we actually speak or write, but rather, we think in a meta-language that precedes any spoken language; this language of thought is called “mentalese”. Such an idea is expounded by such cognitive psychologists and linguists as Pinker (1994) who, referring to “Whorf’s radical position” (p. 60), argues vehemently against the Whorfian idea that language contains thought and culture, going so far as to declare, “the more you examine Whorf’s arguments, the less sense they make” (p. 60). However, Pinker does not offer any evidence to substantiate his argument against the Whorfian viewpoint.

A more 'Whorfian' approach might be represented by authors such as George Lakoff, who have argued all language is essentially metaphor. For instance, English employs many metaphorical tropes that in one way or another equate time with money, e.g.:

spend time
waste time
invest time

Other languages do not make such comparisions; a Whorfian interpretation would be that this usage influences the way English speakers conceive of the abstract quality of "time." For another example, political arguments, are shaped by the web of conceptual metaphors that underlie language use. In political debates, it matters a great deal whether one is arguing in favor of the "right to life" or the "right to choose"; whether one is discussing "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers."

Today researchers disagree — often intensely— about how strongly language influences thought. However, this disagreement has sparked increasing interest in the issue and a great deal of innovative and important research.


A possible argument against the strong ("Weltanschauung") version of this idea, that most thought is constrained by language, can be discovered through personal experience: all people have occasional difficulty expressing themselves due to constraints in the language, and are conscious that the language is not adequate for what they mean. Perhaps they say or write something, and then think "that's not quite what I meant to say" or perhaps they cannot find a good way to explain a concept they understand to a novice. This makes it clear that what is being thought is not a set of words, because one can understand a concept without being able to express it in words.Template:Fact However, this criticism may be countered by the argument that in a social context, the inability to express a concept is just as much a constraint as an inability to formulate it. An idea which cannot be expressed cannot be promulgated; cannot be used to build a group concensus; and therefore cannot drive political action - consequently, it has as much practical social impact as if it had never been conceived at all. Therefore, while the strong hypothesis may not hold true for an individual, it remains valid for an entire society.

The opposite extreme—that language does not influence thought at all—is also widely considered to be false.Template:Fact One study showed that, even with extensive training, adult members of a Micronesian community whose language had only three number words: "one," "two," and "many," were unable to learn even simple mathmatics.Template:Fact In another example, it has been shown that people's discrimination of similar colors can be influenced by how their language organizes color names. A study with members of a native tribe whose language had words for only three colors, "black," "white," and "red," showed a reduced ability to identify differences in color of colored chipsTemplate:Fact. However, these results may only indicate a reduced ability to communicate a recognized difference in color due to the influence of their language system on their brain structure, rather than an actual lack of perception.Template:Fact.). Another study showed that deaf children of hearing parents may fail on some cognitive tasks unrelated to hearing, while deaf children of deaf parents succeed, due to the hearing parents being less fluent in sign language.Template:Fact

Linguistic determinismEdit

Among the most frequently cited examples of linguistic determinism is Whorf's study of the language of the Inuit, who were thought to have multiple words for snow. He argues that this modifies the world view of the Inuit, creating a different mode of existence for them than, for instance, a speaker of English. The notion that Arctic people have an unusually large number of words for snow has been shown to be false by linguist Geoffrey Pullum; in an essay titled The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, he tracks down the origin of the story, ultimately attributing it largely to Whorf and suggesting the triviality of Whorf's observations. (Whatever the conclusion to the snow debate, it should be noted that Whorf's developed thought focused on ubiquitous grammatical categories, especially covert ones, not lexical sets.)

These ideas have met with some resistance in the linguistic community. Numerous studies in color perception across various cultures have resulted in differing viewpoints. (Berlin & Kay, 1969; Heider, 1972; Heider & Oliver, 1973; Rosch, 1974; Miller & Johnson-Laird, 1976)

Recently, however, there has been a resurgence in the idea of linguistic determinism. An important case study by John A. Lucy on perception of numerosity in Mayan found compelling evidence for the hypothesis. Based on grammatical analyses of the structure of both English and Mayan in a universalist grammatical framework he ventured substantive hypotheses about the performance of speakers of both languages on a series of verbal and non-verbal tests. His results seem to comfirm his hypotheses.

A recent study by Peter Gordon examines the language of the Pirahã tribe of Brazil. According to Gordon, the language used by this tribe only contains three counting words: one, two and many. Gordon shows through a series of experiments that the people of the Pirahã tribe have difficulty recounting numbers higher than three (Gordon, 2004). However, the causal relationship of these events is not clear. Critics have argued that if the test subjects are unable to count numbers higher than three for some other reason (perhaps because they are nomadic hunter/gatherers with nothing to count and hence no need to practice doing so) then one should not expect their language to have words for such numbers. That is, it is the lack of need which explains both the lack of counting ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary.

Fictional presenceEdit

George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a striking example of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity in fiction, in which a language known as Newspeak has trimmed and supplanted Modern English. In this case, Orwell says that if humans cannot form the words to express a revolution, then they cannot revolt. All of the theory of Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words. For example, bad has been replaced by ungood, and the concept of freedom has been eliminated over time.

Jack Vance's science fiction novel The Languages of Pao centers on an experiment in modeling a civilization by tweaking its language. The future planet of Pao, inhabited by peasant cultivators who bow passively to absolute monarchy and are prey to foreign invaders, creates three castes - of warriors, merchants, and technicians - each with a specifically-tailored language designed to instill the appropriate skills and mindsets. As a result the planet overcomes its foreign military invaders and economic exploiters, but becomes dangerously divided into mutually-hostile castes - and this is overcome by developing yet another language, a "pastiche" which combines elements from the languages of the three castes as well as the planet's original language, this Pastiche becoming the language of the reunified, versatile society.

In Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune and its sequels, the Principle of Linguistic Relativity first appears when a character (Jessica Atreides) with extensive linguistic training encounters a foreign tribe (the Fremen). She is shocked by the "violence" of their language, as she believes their word choices and language structure reflect a culture of enormous violence.

Samuel R. Delany's novel Babel-17 is centered on a fictional language that denies its speakers independent thought, forcing them to think purely logical thoughts. This language is used as a weapon of war, because it is supposed to convert everyone who learns it to a traitor. In the novel, the language Babel-17 is likened to computer programming languages that do not allow errors or imprecise statements.

Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash revolves around the notion that the Sumerian language was a programming language for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter program or nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different tongues as a protection against Asherah.

Suzette Haden Elgin's science fiction novel Native Tongue describes a patriarchal society in which the overriding priority of the oppressed women is the secret development of a "feminist" language to aid them in throwing off their shackles.

Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed takes place partly on a world with an anarcho-communist society whose constructed language contains little means for expressing possessive relationships, among other features.

Gene Wolfe's novel The Citadel of the Autarch presents a counter-example to the SWH: one of the characters speaks entirely in slogans, but is able to express deep and subtle meanings via context.

Ayn Rand's novel Anthem presents a collectivist dystopia where the word "I" is banned, and any that speak it are put to death.

Ryan North's webcomic Dinosaur Comics discusses the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in its September 27th, 2005 strip.

In Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Mike is able to do things that most other humans can't do, and is unable to explain any of this in English, however, once others learn Martian, they start to be able to do these things - Those concepts could only be explained in Martian.




See alsoEdit



Further readingEdit

  • Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. By Benjamin Whorf, edited by John Carroll. MIT Press.
  • Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. By Edward Sapir, edited by David G. Mandelbaum. University of California Press.
  • Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. By John A. Lucy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Grammatical Categories and Cognition: A Case Study of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. By John A. Lucy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Edited by John Gumperz. Cambridge University Press.
  • The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. By Steven Pinker. Perennial.
  • "What are the nine Eskimo words for snow?", 1979-02-16, The Straight Dope — Cecil Adams answers this question by saying that due to the polysynthetic nature of Inuktitut (which he and his interrogator term "Eskimo"), it is impossible to pin down a number of words.
  • "Are there nine Eskimo words for snow (revisited)?", 2001-02-02, The Straight Dope — Cecil Adams responds to criticism by listing 15 of the words that English has for snow, concluding "Whatever may be said for the S-W hypothesis in general, the notion that it's supported by Eskimo words for snow is bunk.".

Empirical examplesEdit

  • Ithkuil language achieves precision and lexical diversity that exceed those of natural languages by employing a very complex grammar. E. g. it has 81 cases, a dozen unique morphological “variables”; but only uses 3600 word-roots.
  • E-Prime—avoids the verb "to be" in terms of general semantics
  • non-sexist language—often promoted on the grounds that sexist attitudes are aided by sexist language
  • gender-neutral pronouns such as spivak pronouns and sie and hir
  • Loglan and Lojban—two languages designed in part to test the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis by placing radically different constraints on speakers
  • Toki Pona — a constructed language inspired by Taoist philosophy and intended to shape the thought processes of its speakers

External linksEdit

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