Ask-A-Linguist: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Answers for this blog excerpt were researched and provided by the Ask-A-Linguist panelists. For a full response, please see the Ask-A-Linguist FAQ section about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theory that an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks. The strong version of the hypothesis states that all human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of language, and is generally less accepted than the weaker version, which says that language only somewhat shapes our thinking and behavior. Following are quotes from the two linguists who first formulated the hypothesis and for whom it is named, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf :

“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 (1958:69)

“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 (1940:213-14)

What are some criticisms of the hypothesis?

While linguists generally agree that the weaker Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativism, can be shown to be true to some extent, there are criticisms of the stronger form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as linguistic determinism. Among the criticisms of the strong form of the Hypothesis are:

  1. One of Whorf’s central arguments in his paper on language determining thought was that the Hopi terminology for time gave the Hopi a different and unique understanding of how time worked, distinct from the typical Western conception of time. Pinker (1994) argues that Whorf had never actually met anyone from the Hopi tribe and that a later anthropologist discovered, in fact, the Hopi conception of time was not so different from the traditional Western understanding of it.
  2. The problem of translatability: if each language had a completely distinct reality encoded within it, how could a work be translated from one language to another? Yet, literary works, instruction manuals and so forth are regularly translated and communication in this regard is not only possible, but happens every day.
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