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Sapir–Whorf hypothesis

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Template:LingPsy 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.

Put simply, the hypothesis argues that the nature of a particular language influences the habitual thought of its speakers. Different patterns of language yield different patterns of thought. This idea challenges the possibility of representing the world perfectly with language, because it acknowledges that the mechanisms of any language affect its users. The hypothesis emerged in many formulations, some weak and some strong.


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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[How to reference and link to summary or text] 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[How to reference and link to summary or text] 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 "places", and time is a path linking them. A phrase like "three days" is grammatically equivalent to "three apples", or "three kilometres". Other languages, including many Native American languages, are oriented towards process. To monolingual speakers of such languages, the concrete/spatial metaphors of SAE grammar may make little sense. Whorf himself claimed that his work on the SWH was inspired by his insight that a Hopi speaker would find relativistic physics fundamentally easier to grasp than an SAE speaker would.

As a result of his status as a student and not as a professional linguist, Whorf's work on linguistic relativity, conducted largely in the late 1930s, did not become popular until the posthumous publication of his writings in the 1950s. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis influenced the development and standardization of Interlingua during the first half of the 20th century, but this was largely due to Sapir's direct involvement. 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. 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”. Pinker refers to "Whorf’s radical position," and 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." (1994, p. 60)

A more 'Whorfian' approach is represented by George Lakoff, who has argued all language is essentially metaphor.[How to reference and link to summary or text] 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

A Whorfian interpretation would be that this usage influences the way English speakers conceive the abstract quality of "time". For another example, political arguments are shaped by the web of conceptual metaphors that underlie language use. In political debates, it matters a great deal whether one is arguing in favor of the "right to life" or against the "right to choose"; whether one is discussing "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers".

In the late 1980s and early 1990s advances in cognitive psychology and anthropological linguistics renewed interest in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Today researchers disagree—often intensely—about how strongly language influences thought. However, this disagreement has sparked increasing interest in the issue and a great deal of innovative and important research.

Experimental support

The opposing idea — that language has absolutely no influence on thought at all — is widely considered to be false (Gumperz: introduction to Gumperz 1996). But the strong version of the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, that language determines thought, is also thought to be incorrect. The most common view is that the truth lies somewhere in between the two and current linguists, rather than studying whether language affects thought, are studying how it affects thought. Earlier, the bulk of the research was concentrated on supporting or disproving the hypothesis; the experimental data have not been able to disprove it.

Investigation into the recall of linguistic entities confirms that the brain stores associations between semantic concepts (like the idea of a house) and phonetic representation (the sounds that make up the word "house"). The initial sounds are more important for recall purposes than later sounds. Relationships between semantic concepts are also stored, but indirect relationships between unrelated concepts can be inadvertently triggered by a "bridge" through a phonetic relationship. For example, the recall of the idea of a house can be sped up by exposure to the word "Home" because they share the same initial sound.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


Many psychological experiments concern the means by which the brain processes, stores, and recalls information. Some studies[How to reference and link to summary or text] concerning the storage of linguistic utterances (e.g. when listening to someone speak, or when reading a book) suggest that in most cases the brain stores the actual words recorded by the senses for only a very short period of time and that for people with the capability to hear spoken language, this representation is phonetic, even for written language. (This is related to, for example, the relatively high frequency of spelling mistakes involving homophones like "there" and "their".) Unless special effort is made at rote memorization, longer term storage of utterances involves distillation into a simpler semantic representation. Thus when people are asked to recall an utterance, they are generally able to easily replicate the meaning - they capture the "gist" of what was said or written - but are unable to reproduce the exact wording (though in many cases they do not realize they are using slightly different words than the original speaker [see Chinese Whisper]). The existence of a semantic representation distinct from phonetic representation raises questions about how closely tied the two layers are, or need to be.

The processing and storage of spatial information (one aspect of "thought") appears to involve some non-linguistic aspects. For example, some experiments[How to reference and link to summary or text] consider the problem of object comparison. Imagine a cartoon drawing of a house. Now imagine two copies of that drawing. The first is rotated clockwise 90 degrees, so the house is lying on its side. The second is only rotated 45 degrees, so the house is simply tilted. Suppose that these three drawings are mixed in with similar drawings in random rotations, which do not actually represent houses. The experimental subject is shown the picture of the house and asked to identify which drawings in the lineup are the same. Studies which have performed this experiment show that the time it takes for someone to correctly recognize the tilted versions of the same picture is proportional to the amount of rotation. This leads to the hypothesis that the brain is "mentally rotating" the candidate pictures to attempt to match the reference copy, and that it takes longer to rotate through 90 degrees than 45. Experimenters assert that this process is possibly independent of either the semantic concept of "house" or the word that represents it and this raises doubts about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Psychological studies of animals indicate that they are able to process and store certain types of spatial information (such as geographical information about territory and food sources). This and the close relationship between spatial memory and the visual system suggests to some researchers that these aspects of the brain may have evolved before spoken language.

Linguistic determinism

Among the most frequently cited examples of linguistic determinism is Whorf's study of the language of the Eskimo people, who were thought to have numerous words for snow. He argues that this modifies the world view of the Eskimo, 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.) See Eskimo words for snow.

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)

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[How to reference and link to summary or text] 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 presence

George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a striking example of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity in fiction, in which a language known as Newspeak has trimmed and supplanted Modern English. In this case, Orwell says that if humans cannot form the words to express the ideas underlying a revolution, then they cannot revolt. All of the theory of Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words. For example, bad has been replaced by ungood, and the concept of freedom has been eliminated over time. According to Nineteen Eighty-Four's appendix on Newspeak, the result of the adoption of the language would be that "a heretical thought ... should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words."

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 (Lady Jessica) 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. Similarly, earlier in the novel, her late husband, Duke Leto, muses on how the nature of Imperial society is betrayed by "the precise delineations for treacherous death" in its language - the use of highly specific terms to describe different methods for delivering poison.

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.

In Iain M. Banks's science fiction series, the Culture has a shared language, Marain. The Culture believes (or perhaps has proved, or else actively made true) the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language affects society, and Marain was designed to exploit this effect. A related comment is made by the narrator in The Player of Games regarding gender-specific pronouns in English. Marain is also regarded as an aesthetically pleasing language.

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 (part of The Book of the New Sun) presents a counter-example to the SWH: one of the characters (an Ascian) speaks entirely in slogans, but is able to express deep and subtle meanings via context. The narrator, Severian, after hearing the Ascian talks, remarks that "The Ascian seemed to speak only in sentences he had learned by rote, though until he used each for the first time we had never heard them . . . Second, I learned how difficult it is to eliminate the urge for expression. The people of Ascia were reduced to speaking only with their masters' voice; but they had made of it a new tongue, and I had no doubt, after hearing the Ascian, that by it he could express whatever thought he wished."[2]

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

Robert Silverberg's novel A Time of Changes describes a society where the first person singular is considered an obscenity.

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.

In Jorge Luis Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius the author discovers references in books to a universe of idealistic individuals whose language lacks the concept of nouns and has other peculiarities that shapes their idealism. As the story progresses the books become more and better known to the world at large, their philosophy starts influencing the real world, and Earth becomes the ideal world described in the books.


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 for 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 upon 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... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir, 1958 [1929], p. 69)
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. (Whorf, 1940, pp. 213–14)

Computer parallel

Kenneth E. Iverson, the originator of the APL programming language, believed that the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis applied to computer languages (without actually mentioning the hypothesis by name). His Turing award lecture, "Notation as a tool of thought", was devoted to this theme, arguing that more powerful notations aided thinking about computer algorithms.[3]


  1. Kerényi, Carl; translated from the German by Ralph Manheim (1996). Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, xxxi, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  2. Wolfe, Gene, The Book of the New Sun (New York: SFBC, 1998) pg. 776.
  3. Iverson K.E.,"Notation as a tool of thought", Communications of the ACM, 23: 444-465 (August 1980).

See also



Further reading

  • Kay, P. and W. Kempton. 1984. "What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?" American Anthropologist 86(1): 65-79.
  • 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. 1996
  • 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.".
  • Lakoff, George. Women fire and dangerous things.
  • "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language", in Current Anthropology, August-October, 2005 (the piraha math experiments)
  • Golubkov, Sergey V. 2000. "The language model of personality and its perspectives within psychology". PsychNews International, 5 (1).
  • Golubkov, Sergey V. 2002. "The Language Personality Theory: An Integrative Approach to Personality on the Basis of its Language Phenomenology". Social Behavior and Personality, 30 (6): 571-578.

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