The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Benjamin Whorf argued that "we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.". (DrAfter123/Getty Images)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the linguistic theory that the semantic structure of a language shapes or limits the ways in which a speaker forms conceptions of the world. A weaker version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (sometimes called neo-Whorfianism) is that language influences a speaker's view of the world but does not inescapably determine it. 

As linguist Steven Pinker notes, "The cognitive revolution in psychology .

. . appeared to kill the [Sapir-Whorf hypothesis] in the 1990s . . .. But recently it has been resurrected, and 'neo-Whorfianism' is now an active research topic in psycholinguistics" (The Stuff of Thought, 2007).

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is named after the American anthropological linguist Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and his student Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941). Also known as the theory of linguistic relativity, linguistic relativism, linguistic determinism, Whorfian hypothesis, and Whorfianism.

Examples and Observations

  • "The idea that the language people speak controls how they think—linguistic determinism—is a recurring theme in intellectual life. It was popular among 20th-century behaviorists, who wanted to replace airy-fairy notions like 'beliefs' with concrete responses like words, whether spoken in public or muttered silently. In the form of the Whorfian or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis . . ., it was a staple of courses on language through the early 1970s, by which time it had penetrated the popular consciousness as well. . . . The cognitive revolution in psychology, which made the study of pure thought possible, and a number of studies showing meager effects of language on concepts, appeared to kill the concept in the 1990s . . .. But recently it has been resurrected, and 'neo-Whorfianism' is now an active research topic in psycholinguistics."
    (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. Viking, 2007)

  • Sapir on Language and Social Reality
    "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 up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality."
    (Edward Sapir, "The Status of Linguistics as a Science," 1929)

  • Whorf on the Organizing Force of Language
    "[T]he 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."
    (Benjamin Whorf, "Science and Linguistics," 1956)

  • Neo-Whorfian Perspectives
    - "Whorf himself did not wish to assert a necessary causal relation between the large-scale linguistic characteristics of a particular natural language and the habitual thought patterns pervasively shared by its native speakers, recognizing this connection as principally bilateral in nature with a hint of a chicken-and-egg dilemma. . . . [T]he neo-Whorfian perspectives can be 'Whorfian' in an original sense."
    (Mutsumi Yamamoto, Agency and Impersonality: Their Linguistic and Cultural Manifestations. John Benjamins, 2006)

    - "The question of whether languages shape the way we think goes back centuries; Charlemagne proclaimed that 'to have a second language is to have a second soul.' But the idea went out of favor with scientists when Noam Chomsky's theories of language gained popularity in the 1960s and '70s. Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages—essentially, that languages don't really differ from one another in significant ways. . . .

    "The search for linguistic universals yielded interesting data on languages, but after decades of work, not a single proposed universal has withstood scrutiny. Instead, as linguists probed deeper into the world's languages (7,000 or so, only a fraction of them analyzed), innumerable unpredictable differences emerged. . . .

    "Languages, of course, are human creations, tools we invent and hone to suit our needs. Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn't tell us whether it's language that shapes thought or the other way around. To demonstrate the causal role of language, what's needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition.

    "One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration of precisely this causal link."
    (Lera Boroditsky, "Lost in Translation." The Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2010)

    - "Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. . . .

    "For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a 'prison house' that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same."
    (Guy Deutscher, "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" The New York Times Magazine, August 26, 2010)