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What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Whorf and WorfAt its simplest, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (aka Linguistic Relativity) says that language affects the way we see the world around us.

In other words, if you speak English like Benjamin Whorf (picture right, in black and white) you will think differently from Worf (picture right, in color) who speaks Klingon.
Whorf and Worf will see the world differently not because they are different people, but because they use different languages.

But is this true? Does this really make sense? This article is a very simple look at what the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is and how language is supposed to affect the way we think.

Language > Culture

Suppose that you learn a language which does not contain any words which relate to war. The theory goes that you would not then be able to think about war, you would not be able to talk about war and then you would end up not being able to make war.

Benjamin Whorf – the linguist who helped popularize this hypothesis, looked at the language of the Hopi Native Americans and concluded that since they did not have the words to talk about time that we do in English, they were unable to look at time in the same way we do and instead saw time as non-linear.

More dangerously, in George Orwell’s seminal novel, 1984, this concept is used to control the population. In the novel there is a whole department whose job it is to change the language people use with the aim of changing the way people think.

As a simple example they removed the word bad from the vocabulary. Instead, people had to use the word ungood. By doing this the idea is that nothing is bad as we understand it, i.e. with negative connotations. Instead something is just not good which lacks the pejorative implication of bad and appears fairly neutral. The idea here is that people without the word bad in their vocabulary would not be able to feel negatively about situations which were not good; in other words they wouldn’t feel bad about them!

As Orwell says, without the words to think about something, people won’t be able to think about it.

On a slightly more banal level, Italian has dozens of words to describe different types of pasta: spaghetti, vermicelli, anelli, farfalle, fusilli and so on. When an Italian uses these words they conjure up a particular taste or image or thought; meanwhile an English person who does not have these words is severely restricted in what they think when it comes to eating Italian food.

Problems with Sapir-Whorf

But there are problems with the hypothesis.

Although language can influence thought (one only has to think about euphemisms to see this is true) research has shown that if people do not have the language to name feelings or ideas it does not stop them thinking about them or feeling them.

There are, for example, the Dani people of Indonesia. In their language they have just two colors as such: dark or light. However, this does not stop them from seeing other colors and describing them if they need to. Likewise the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon do not have words for the various numbers and cannot count as such. So although they do not have the language to count, they are still able to explain numbers in a roundabout way when necessary so again, not having the language does not stop them having the idea or the thought.

These days pretty well all linguists reject the idea that language determines thought and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has fallen out of favor (studies into the Hopi language for example show that Whorf was wrong in saying they view time differently from English speakers).

But still there are many people who accept the idea that language can influence thought (and thence culture). Ask an Italian for a coffee and it is associated with a quick five minutes standing at a bar, downing an espresso and shooting off. Ask a Greek the same question and it will be associated with sitting in a cafe for an hour while lingering over a drink.

Un caffè is most certainly not the same thing as ένα καφέ or even a coffee.

Useful Links

Euphemisms in English – how language affects the way we think about things

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