Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – Linguistic relativity

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – Linguistic relativity


Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also referred to as Linguistic Relativity, claims that language carries a conspicuous impact on our perception towards the world around us. This hypothesis was based on the subsequent works of both of Sapir and his student Whorf, who have tried to confirm through various data that language obviously influences the way we see the world.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a theory which was initially proposed by the American linguist and anthologist Edward Sapir. Through his work “The status of Linguistics as a science”, Sapir explicitly sheds light on the rudiments of his hypothesis by claiming that language has an impact on our thought and perception.  In 1940, Whorf, Sapir’s student, gave his own reformulation of the hypothesis through his essay on “Science and Linguistics”.
Besides suggesting that language can impact our thoughts, this hypothesis implies that different languages yield different perceptions and thoughts towards the world i.e. the speaker of language A is perceiving the world differently from the speaker of language B.This view led to controversies pertained not only to linguistics but also to other disciplines such psychology, philosophy, anthropology and even natural sciences. In this regard, for language is to determine the way we see the world, the reality becomes subjective.Consequently, the scientific findings we got to turn out to be questionable in the lack of an objective reality.

Edward Sapir

According to Sapir, language relatively shapes our world view, and doesn’t ideally reflect it; therefore, objectivity can still be attained; However, speakers of different languages can never be identical in the way they think.Sapir spent his career studying the relationship between culture and language. He focused mainly on American Indians languages and found out that the study of a given language cannot be separated from the culture where it is being used.  In his book language, Sapir explains such a relation between language and culture:“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…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, 1929b)

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Whorfian Hypothesis

Whorf was the student of Sapir, and the one who has developed the idea that Sapir advocated before in a more radical way –his theory is also known as the Whorfian hypothesis. In his rigorous study of the Hopi language –an American Indian language, Whorf startlingly unveiled that the grammar of this latter language is structurally and syntactically different from those Indo-European languages.Thus, Whorf started to believe that such irregular difference is caused by the different way the speakers of that language think and perceive the world. Meaning that as long as Language is the reflection of thought, and since the structures of languages are not similar, our thoughts’ structures cannot be similar either.In this concern, Whorf added fuel to fire by implying that the relationship between language and culture is not relative, as Sapir’s claimed, rather it is deterministic, Caroll (1956)  explained quite clearly this idea:“The background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade.Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. 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 ــــand this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significance as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way ــــan 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.”
This structural difference which Whorf advocates was explained in his own terms:
“[Hopi has] no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at equal rate, out of a future, through the present, into a past…. [Hopi has] no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call “time”

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Criticism of Sapir Whorf hypothesis

The controversy which this hypothesis triggered was faced by incessant reactions from different researchers and critics; thus it was expected that the hypothesis was to receive criticism, and the following remarks are considered to be the main lacuna the Whorfian hypothesis reflects:

  • Lack of a strong theoretical and linguistic basis: it was deemed that Whorf’s hypothesis was lacking enough linguistic data as he assumed that linguistic differences between cultures indicate the occurrence of psychological differences between these cultures.
  • Inaccurate Translations: According to Lenneberg, Whorf’s translations of data didn’t take into account the metaphorical meanings the picked up words may carry, rather he literally translated the words, and thus distorted their accurate meaning. An example of this inaccuracy is exhibited in Whorf’s translation of Apache verb prefixes into English. The translation of those prefixes was literal and comparative.
  • Factual misconceptions: According to Whorf, Hopi language is timeless whose speakers carry no concepts of time. Paradoxically, Malotki proved it differently. According to this latter, Hopi speakers tend to use spatial concepts to talk about time, they express temporality through adverbs like “last” and prepositions.

Carroll, J.B. (ed.) (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT PressLenneberg, E.H. (1953). Cognition in Ethnolinguistics. Language 29Malotki, E. (1979). Hopi-Raum. Eine Sprach Wissenschaftliche Analyse der Raumvorstellungen in der Hopi SpracheSapir, E. (1929 b). The Status of Linguistics as a science, LanguageWhorf, B.L. (1946). The Hopi Language, Toreva Dialect. Linguistic Structures of Native America

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