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-independant language such as Lojban is a new approach
testing the hypothesis, but so far nothing has been proven.