The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

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. This controversial hypothesis is named after the linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and student Benjamin Whorf.

There are conceptually related, but technically quite different, controversies about programming languages; see Sapir-Whorf and programming languages.


History of the concept

The origin of the SWH 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 nineteenth 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 Kant. In a nutshell, 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." In America, 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's star students. He furthered Boas's 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 that "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) Hopi 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. A good example of the SWH in action comes from Whorf's own work. Whorf was a chemist by training and worked in the insurance industry as a fire prevention engineer. It was on the basis of the SWH he made the historic shift of labeling things likely to ignite as 'flammable' rather than 'inflammable' since his research showed that most people incorrectly understood 'inflammable' to mean 'incapable of catching on fire' rather than 'capable of having flames come into it.' This resulted in fewer fires as people treated flammable objects with caution rather than assuming that they would not catch fire.

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 (which led to an offshoot Lojban) in order to test the hypothesis. 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, while a more 'Whorfian' approach might be represented by authors such as George Lakoff, who have argued that political arguments, for instance, are shaped by the web of conceptual metaphors that underlie language use. 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.

Strong and weak versions

A possible argument against the extreme ("Weltanschauung") version of this idea, that all 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.

The opposite extreme — that language does not influence thought at all — is also widely considered to be false. For example, it has been shown that people's discrimination of similar colors can be influenced by how their language organizes color names. 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.

Linguistic determinism

Among the most frequently cited examples of linguistic determinism is Whorf's study of the language of the Inuit, who 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 so many words for snow has been called an "urban legend" by philosopher Steven Pinker. More to the point would be its triviality. The fact that wine fanciers have a rich vocabulary to speak about the tastes they find in wines is not thought of as evidence that their minds work differently; only that they know more than the average person about wine. English speaking skiers may have a snow vocabulary whose richness approaches that of the Inuit.

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; Miller & Johnson-Laird, 1976; Rosch, 1974)

Recently, however, there has been a resurgence in the idea of linguistic determinism, largely due to a study by Peter Gordon of Columbia University which examines the language of the Piraha 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 Piraha tribe have difficulty recounting numbers higher than three. (Gordon, 2004) However, the causality relationship of these events is not clear. Critics have argued that if they are for some other reason unable to count numbers higher than three (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.

Politics and etiquette

Some have attempted to turn the hypothesis into a political tool. So-called politically correct language stems from the belief that using (for example) Censored page language tends to make one think in a sexist manner. In its strongest form, belief that constraints on language can actually achieve political goals may be a form of magical thinking. Politically constrained language may however be effective at creating new rules of etiquette, labelling certain disapproved usages as breaches of social custom. It is unclear, however, that political etiquette changes perceptions. The philosopher Steven Pinker coined the phrase the euphemism treadmill to describe the process in which euphemistic neologisms acquire all the negative associations of the words they were coined to replace (eg: crippled, disabled, challenged, differently abled).

This part of the hypothesis is strikingly shown in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four, where 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 free has been eliminated over time.


"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)
"Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than English. They do not have four hundred words for snow, as it has been claimed in print, or two hundred, or one hundred, or forty-eight, or even nine. One dictionary puts the figure at two. Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen, but by such standards English would not be far behind, with snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, avalanche, hail, hardpack, powder, flurry, dusting, and a coinage of Boston's WBZ-TV meteorologist Bruce Schwoegler, snizzling." (Pinker, The Language Instinct (1994), p. 64)

Further reading

  • 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 Lucy. 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.


External links

  • Which comes first, language or thought?
  • Language may shape human thought

See also




Last updated: 02-07-2005 20:22:51
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55