What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the structure of a language constrains thought in that language, and constrains and influences the culture that uses it. In otherwords, if concepts or structural patterns are difficult to express in a language, the society and culture using the language will tend to avoid them. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is considered important, and controversial to some as it can be used as a sociological argument to justify or to oppose racism and sexism (and a variety of other 'isms'). For example, the assertion that since genderless expressions in English use 'masculine' forms, English is 'sexist', presumes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true.

What evidence is there to support this hypothesis?

It is known generally that people's ideas and thought change somewhat when they learn a foreign language. It is not known whether this change is due to exposure to a different culture or even just getting outside of ones own culture. It is also not known how much (if any) of the change is due to the nature of the language, as opposed to the cultural associations.

What is the current state of the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was important in linguistics in the 1950's, but interest fell off partially because properly testing it was so difficult as separating language from culture is so difficult. Using a culture-independent language such as Lojban is a new approach testing the hypothesis, but so far nothing has been proven.


Source: http://www.lojban.org/publications/brochures/brochure_english.txt

The so-called 'strong form' of this hypothesis is that one cannot think a thought which cannot be expressed in one's language. The weaker form states that it is easier to think thoughts which are easily expressible in one's language, and conversely, harder to think thoughts which are not easily expressed.

While it is true that most scholars reject the strong form, it might be more accurate to state that the strong form is not even wrong. The weak form is still hotly contested by a number of factions in psychology, linguistics and philosophy. Whether or not one believes this hypothesis is correct is probably strongly correlated with one's beliefs about whether language is innate or learned.

George Orwell employed the strong form in his novel 1984: in Oceania, the Party was in the midst of compiling a definitive lexicon of Newspeak, a language descended from English. The purpose of Newspeak was to make criminal or heretical thoughts impossible by removing from English all words that could be used to express these thoughts, and by closely restricting the meaning of the words that remained.

Even the weak form of Sapir-Whorf is beginning to fall seriously out of favor with many linguists. A series of recent experiments which have been formatted to test concretely whether monolinguals have trouble dealing with ideas which their language does not formulate clearly seem to indicate that in fact, they do not.

One particular example I recall involved testing speakers of Chinese, which has no subjunctive mood, on their understanding of situations involving conditionality and potential action. If even the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds, it would stand to reason that monolingual Chinese-speakers would have difficulty with situations which would require the subjunctive to form clearly. The tests showed that the Chinese-speakers scored just as well, and took just as much time as speakers of English.

This has led to the formualtion and advancement of a fairly radical hypothesis in the exact opposite direction of Sapir-Whorf: that humans think in some kind of non-verbal language (to make this not a total contradiction in terms, perhaps symbolic system applies more than language), which some of its proponents have called "Mentalese". All actual thought processes, under this theory, are formulated in Mentalese, and then internally translated into the language of the internal monologue, so that they can be vocalized.

None of this, of course, is set in stone. IMHO, all of this groping about with far-fetched, contradictory, and not easilly testable theories shows just how far cognitive linguistics has to go before it reaches anything close to a definitive, or even particularly useful, state.

The fictional language Marain (as created by Iain M. Banks in the Culture novels) is an example of a language created according to this sort of idea, except as less of a control thing than Newspeak. It's a bit more subtle than that. Apparently the Minds that created it still mostly consider it the best way of communciation, even during the time of the various novels (X number of thousands/millions of years after it's creation at some unspecified far ago time). From hyper-advanced artificial intelligences that's high praise.

At one point in "The Player Of Games", the drone thinks that Gurgeh is becoming less of a nice civilized person due to the fact that he isn't speaking Marain all the time (as he's in the Empire of Azad at the time)

Unfortunately we only know a few words of it ("Morat" and "Shequi" are two I can remember offhand), so we can't analyse this. Oh well, I suppose Banks has better things to do with his existence than make up entire new languages.

See also "A Few Notes on the Culture". (and, just for fun, Culture Ship Names)
There is also the notion that the language we use may actually structure the way in which we perceive the world (I guess it is arguable whether this equates to influencing "the kind of thoughts we can have", but on the face of it it seems even stronger.)

The classic example is the umpteen different Eskimo words for snow. Because they have all these different words, the theory goes, Eskimos are better able to distinguish correctly between bits of snow with different properties.

Another example that is cited concerns the visible spectrum. If you look at a spectrum, you're looking at something that varies continuously - there's a smooth increase in the frequency of the light from red to violet. But it often looks as though the spectrum is divided into bands of colours, with fuzzy transition areas between them. The full-blown Hypothesis applied to this would state that the locations of these bands that we see are strongly influenced by what colour words we have in our language. If we had a set of colour words that divided up the spectrum differently, we would actually see it differently.

Here's a table showing how colour words in English correspond to those in the Tiv language (spoken in Nigeria):

           English  |      Tiv
            green   | \  pupu
            ________|  \ (light)
                    |   \
            blue    |    \
            ________|ii   \ 
                    |      \                   
            grey    |(dark) \
                    |        \
            brown   | 
            red     |   nyian  
            yellow  |

Obviously, the physiological basis of colour perception is (usually) the same for speakers of both languages. But a case may still be made that the associations and groupings which feed into our perceptions are strongly influenced by the way our language divides things up, in this case, so that a Tiv speaker wouldn't see the same bands we seem to see when looking at a spectrum. Perhaps this is a case of "seeing as", similar to when we see a duck-rabbit as a duck. Perhaps someone fluent in both languages would be able to see both bandings, or groupings (though not at the same time) just as we can focus on the duck or the rabbit, when looking at the duck-rabbit

Research has shown that cultures with more complex technologies and economies will generally tend to have a more variegated colour vocabulary.

The example of the snow words (also actually used by Sapir and Whorf) has been contested, but one can easily imagine other examples, for example words for different types of waves known by surfers. When the surfer looks at an upcoming wave, the effort she's put into learning how these behave, which is reflected in the more advanced vocabulary of the surfers, lets her draw more information out of the same perceptual 'input data'.

Or, when you deliver to your grandparent an intricate lecture on 18 forms of modern electronic music, distinguishing carefully between each, and are met with the blank statement that "it's all just noise, thud thud thud", this can be seen as an example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in action.

It seems that when a community of people make a concerted effort to investigate a feature of the environment, or are continually interacting with it, the extra knowledge they accumulate is filtered into their language, and in turn this becomes useful for preserving and communicating that knowledge, and hence the perceptual insights which accompany it.

Since thoughts that can't be expressed in any language are difficult to consider, in a scientific approach, probably the best way to evaluate the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is to consider thoughts which are easily expressed in some other language, but resist expression in our own.

Learning to think the thoughts of the speakers of this different language, or to make the equivalent perceptual distinctions, might be seen as equivalent in difficulty to learning that language (or the part of it concerning those particular thoughts), however. I think we can take it that the former is at least not more difficult than the latter.

So, the strong version of the Hypothesis, which implies we can't ever properly understand some meanings of a language originating in a different culture, takes an unduly negative view of the difficulties of learning fluency in such a language.

On this view, we could perhaps restate the weaker Hypothesis as the idea that at least for some terms from the different language, understanding thoughts expressed using these terms may be just as hard as actually learning to use the terms in the language in question, with whatever other learning of the language that that entails, and so expressing them may be equivalent in difficulty to teaching someone else how to use the terms (a task we can accomplish, however awkwardly, in our own language.) This is helpful, because it allows us to appreciate in greater depth that there is more to learning a language than just being able to remember the vocabulary and syntax. An even weaker version would be the uncontroversial idea that languages vary in their expressive strengths and weaknesses, and what is easily expressed in one language may take more effort in another one.

But the full-blown strong form will either need to provide some criterion for understanding another language (and it will then fail, because experience shows us that people may understand foreign languages arbitrarily well) or it puts itself beyond scientific evaluation, because it will be forced to claim that, despite meeting every practical test that's applied, a fluent speaker who's learned a different language somehow doesn't "really" understand it properly.

This choice between empirical failure and a mystical sense of "not understanding" is enough to show that the strong form (as originally proposed by Sapir and Whorf) is just wrong or vacuous.

Diagram and other information from:

"Snow-words" are thoroughly debunked at
and discussed here.

See also: colour terms in language.

I think there are a few things worth adding to this. The first thing is that the notion that someone might have many words for, e.g., snow, and thus be able to discern more qualities of that thing is just nonsense. This way of thinking is putting the cart before the horse. Obviously, the more you know about something, the finer distinctions you can make in that thing. If making those distinctions and being able to talk about them is important to you, then you make a label for them, and you and your cohorts have a jargon. It happens all the time but really isn`t anything to get excited about, and it does not mean that other folks who speak your native tongue couldn`t, if they wished, learn the distinctions and the jargon that goes along with them. In other words, if we all cared about techno, we could all learn the labels. But we don`t because we have better things to do.

What this means, at least to me and others of my ilk, is that any language can expand to include whatever vocabulary its speakers deem useful. If you wish to formulate this into a handy rule, it would be something like the opposite of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: culture determines language. This explains why subcultures like techno geeks, surfer geeks, and computer geeks have such a quantity of jargon that to the rest of us is mainly meaningless. I would wager that no one would be so foolish as to say that computer geeks became what they are BECAUSE they learned the jargon. This also goes some distance toward explaining why, say, the Chinese and Gaelic speakers can have no words for yes and no but can still manage to express the concepts, and why the Japanese have a word that essentially translates to 'no', yet they rarely use it. If they need it, it is there, but culturally it isn`t all that useful.

As far as the relative difficulty of learning (insofar as they are separable) the grammar of a language and "how to think in that language", or what we might call the pragmatics of the language, anyone who has seriously tried to live and communicate in a culture (and language) really different from her own, knows that these are related and equally difficult pursuits. It is one thing to learn French at home in England and never use it except maybe on your sightseeing excursions to the Eiffel Tower. You will probably not notice that you do not in fact "think" French thoughts. It is another thing to, say, go to live in a new culture and see how far your perfect grammar gets you. There will be many times when your well-constructed sentences elicit blank stares, uncomfortable silences, and even worse (incidentally, I know from experience; I am an ugly American living in rural Japan). Until you know the pragmatics, you can`t use the language like a native speaker. You have to learn the culture that drives the language before you can really be said to speak the language with anything resembling fluency.

Or, as I think Chomsky said, every language is capable of generating an infinite number of sentences. But in practice the sentences actually used depend on a lot of factors, one of which is the pragmatics, or cultural constraints.

And one last thing...the guys who did the color terms in language studies were Paul Kay and Brent Berlin and the studies are referred to as the Berlin-Kay studies and the chart as the Berlin-Kay Color Chart.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.