Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

Can the language we use affect how we think? As a university student studying language, there will be plenty of theories and theorists you'll need to learn about. In this article, we're going to cover the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. 

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Table of contents

    The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was first proposed by Edward Sapir in 1929 and was later supplemented and advanced by Benjamin Whorf. To ensure we cover all the relevant information, we'll be looking at a Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis definition, an example, some criticism, and a summary of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

    Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, silhoutte heads with cog brains, StudySmarterFig 1. Cognition involves how we think and perceive things. Is it affected by language?

    So, how does language relate to thinking? Let's find out.

    Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Definition

    Before we get into a deeper analysis of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, let's first equip ourselves with a definition:

    The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a hypothesis about linguistic relativity. The concept behind it is that the structure and vocabulary of a particular language will influence or determine the perception, worldview, or cognition of the native speakers of that language.

    The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is also known as the hypothesis of linguistic relativity. We will use both terms in this article.

    Summary of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

    In summary, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests the language a person uses determines or influences their thinking or worldview. The grammatical and lexical structures used by a person (or population speaking the same language) do have a significant impact on their cognition, according to the hypothesis.

    The relationship between language and thinking can be seen in how language is influenced by cultural factors. The culture of a country or demographic is essentially the set of beliefs and values through which we experience and perceive the world. Each unique culture will have a different language or language variety. Because culture is specific to each group, each group will develop linguistic structures and different words to describe phenomena pertinent to their culture.

    According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, because different groups use different languages or use language in different ways, they will perceive the world differently. According to the hypothesis, these two phenomena are inextricably (impossible to separate) linked.

    Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Example

    It's one thing to understand what the hypothesis states. It's another thing to understand how it works. Let's look at a couple of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis examples to help illustrate what the hypothesis proposes.

    Example 1:

    Did you know that the Inuit (the indigenous people from Alaska and other Arctic regions) have over 100 different words for snow? This " fact " has circulated for some time but is actually an exaggeration.

    Although 100 is too high a number, the Inuit do have between 40 and 50 words to refer to snow, depending on different types of snow and their uses. A few examples include:

    • qanik: falling snow
    • aniu: snow used to make drinking water
    • aputi: snow on the ground

    Most other cultures do not have even close to 40 words for snow, and because the Inuit do, it suggests that they have a more integral understanding or in-depth perception of snow itself.

    Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, close-up of a snowflake, StudySmarterFig.2. The Inuit have over 40 words for different kinds of snow.

    Example 2:

    You might have heard or seen the word "hygge" before, perhaps in a bookshop or on TV. The word "hygge" is a Danish and Norwegian word that has a complex meaning.

    Hygge refers to feelings of coziness, contentment, well-being, and the quality of being comfortably friendly and lively (convivial).

    Whilst people from other countries and cultures might be familiar with this word, in English (for example), we don't have a single word that conveys quite the same feeling. We might say that we feel cozy or warm and content, but no English word truly conveys what hygge does. The existence of the word hygge in Danish and Norwegian gives speakers a more acute and specific perception of the feeling it describes.

    Example 3:

    Gendered language can also illustrate the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

    For example, in English, we have words such as "fireman" and "policeman" that, when used prolifically, convey the idea that only men are fit for such roles. Likewise, other marked terms (the altered form of a word that is often given lower prestige than the default unmarked term), such as "headmistress" and "manageress," also suggest less importance or power than their unmarked counterparts. The same is true for terms such as "male nurse," which implies men are not the default demographic for this job.

    As language use has evolved over the years, more gender-neutral terms have come into use ("firefighter," "police officer," "head teacher," "manager," and "nurse"). Continued use of these terms has shifted the thinking that certain jobs are only for certain genders to a more inclusive understanding.

    Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Evaluation

    Now that we know what the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is and have seen some examples of it in action, we can move on to our Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis evaluation.

    There is a dichotomy (a division into two parts) that exists within the hypothesis. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is often spoken about in stronger or weaker terms. What do we mean by this?

    Within the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, there are two sub-categories: linguistic determinism (stronger) and linguistic relativism (weaker).

    Linguistic Determinism

    This is the "stronger" way of viewing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which states that cognition is determined by language. The assumption that can be made using this theory is that the language we use is the reason we think the way we do.

    Each country and culture has its beliefs and values as a direct result of the language it uses. A country that does not have the language to describe a particular idea or concept cannot possibly understand or perceive it.

    It is worth noting that linguistic determinism is generally believed to be reductionist and incorrect nowadays, as it doesn't take individual differences and subjective experience into account. We will touch on this again in the section on criticism of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

    If something is reductionist, it takes a complex idea and analyses it in terms of its smallest components. This can lead to inaccurate or over-generalized conclusions that do not properly reflect the idea being analyzed.

    Linguistic Relativism

    Linguistic relativism is the "weaker" or less intense version of linguistic determinism. It states that the language a person uses influences their perception of the world but does not define it.

    Linguistic relativism gives individuals a bit more credit than linguistic determinism, as it allows for the idea that people can still understand a concept even if they don't have the specific language to describe it. For example, let's look at the word hygge again. English-speaking people can still understand the concept of hygge, even though we don't have one specific word to describe it like the Danish and Norwegian people do.

    Linguistic relativism is generally more widely accepted than linguistic determinism.

    Criticism of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

    As with all linguistic theories and hypotheses, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is not without its faults. Here are some examples of criticism of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis:

    • The linguistic determinism aspect of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is reductionist. It has long since been debunked that language is a direct determiner of cognition. Thought is a much more complicated process than simply being a result of a person's language. People are able to think about and understand concepts that they may not have the exact language for.
    • There is an issue of causality. We cannot prove that language influences thinking. Could it be instead that thinking influences language? In the example of gendered vs. gender-neutral language, for instance, it could be assumed that the use of gender-neutral language shifted the perception and thinking of speakers to be more inclusive. However, it could also be theorized that speakers' evolving perceptions and thinking led to the introduction of more gender-neutral language. It's a classic chicken-and-egg situation.

    • The hypothesis cannot be transferred or applied to all languages. There are examples we can look at for a particular language that might illustrate or suggest a basis for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (e.g., the many words for snow used by the Inuit). However, there is no way to know for sure that other cultures don't also understand and perceive the different kinds of snow, even if they don't have the same breadth of vocabulary for it.

    Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, two police officers, StudySmarterFig. 3. Is it that gender-neutral language has shifted the perception of gender, or that perception of gender has led to more gender-neutral language?

    Sapir Whorf Hypothesis - Key takeaways

    • The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that language influences cognition and thinking and can alter a person's worldview.
    • The hypothesis has two underlying theories: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism.
    • Linguistic determinism states that language use determines or defines thinking and perception.
    • Linguistic relativism states that language use may influence thinking but does not define it.
    • Some criticisms of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis are that it is reductionist, not transferrable to all languages, and cannot be proven in terms of causality.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

    How do you explain Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also called the hypothesis of linguistic relativity and it states that language use influences or determines the cognition, thinking, and world-view of the speaker.

    What are the two parts of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

    The two parts of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis are linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism. Linguistic determinism states that language defines a person's thinking and perception, whereas linguistic relativism says language can influence cognition and perception but does not define it. 

    What is some evidence that supports the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

    Although there is no direct evidence that proves the Sapir Whorf hypothesis, there are some examples that suggest the theory has some validity. For example, the fact that the Inuit have over 40 words for snow suggests that they have a more in-depth perception and understanding of snow. Likewise, the Danish and Norwegian word "hygge" is a word that we do not have in English. This implies that Danish and Norwegian people have a better understanding of the feeling of hygge than people who do not have a word for what it describes. 

    Why is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis discredited?

    The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has been found to be reductionist and lacking in transferability and provable causality. Therefore, it is not held in as high esteem as it was when it was first proposed. 

    Why is the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis rejected?

    The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis has been generally rejected mostly due to the idea of linguistic determinism, which takes a very reductionist and even incorrect stance on the relationship between language and cognition.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In what year was the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis first proposed, and who was the first to suggest it?

    What is another term that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is commonly known by?

    Finish this sentence:"The relationship between language and thinking can be seen in how language is influenced by______."  


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