Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) developed the idea known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Sapir and Whorf posited that the particular language we speak influences the way we see reality because categories and distinctions encoded in one language are not always available in another language (linguistic relativity). Scholars also interpret the hypothesis as standing for the proposition that differences in the structure of languages produce differences in how people think (linguistic determinism). However, neither theorist specified exactly the relationship between language and thought; that is, whether he believed that language determines thinking or just influences it. Consequently, because of its lack of specificity, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has been a controversial idea since its inception in the 1920s and 1930s. Scholars in a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, education, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, have disagreed about the role of language in thinking and how Sapir and Whorf intended to conceptualize that relationship. They have conducted research based on their conceptualization of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in the hopes of finding empirical evidence to support it. However, research findings remain inconclusive, and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a subject that scholars continue to investigate.
From his studies of the research of Wilhelm von Humboldt and his own research on languages, Sapir concluded that there is clearly a connection between language and thought; however, he did not clearly state whether he believed that language determined thought. Rather, he argued that no two languages are ever sufficiently similar such that they could represent the same reality. Instead, he posited that the worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached to them. Furthermore, Sapir believed that we see and hear and otherwise experience the world very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.
One of Sapir’s students, Benjamin Lee Whorf, further developed the proposition that there is a systematic relationship between categories of language and thinking. Many scholars attribute the development of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf was not an academic linguist but a fire insurance inspector; the study of linguistics was his avocation. Whorf studied the Hopi language under the supervision of Sapir. He developed a theory in collaboration with Sapir that many scholars identify as extreme Whorfianism. Extreme Whorfianism states that the structure of a human being’s language determines the manner in which a person understands reality and behaves with respect to it. Whorf argued that we categorize nature along lines laid down by our native languages. Thus, for example, Whorf believed that speakers of Chinese dissect nature and the universe differently from Western speakers. In sum, Whorf believed that the culture of a people deter-mines their language and their language determines the way that they categorize their thoughts and their experiences in the world.
Although Sapir and Whorf described a relationship between language and thought and culture, neither of them formally wrote a hypothesis that specified a relationship that scholars could subject to rigorous empirical testing. Instead, they proposed broad definitions and gave examples from their research to illustrate their arguments. Indeed, scholars formally named the ideas the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis only after the deaths of Sapir and Whorf. Yet the hypothesis remains an authoritative but controversial statement primarily because of its two central principles: linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism.
The principle of linguistic determinism is troublesome to many scholars and a source of criticism. This principle posits that we construct our thoughts based upon the language that we speak and the words that we use. In its strongest sense, linguistic determinism means that language determines thought; that is, humans may be able to think only about objects, events, processes, and conditions that have language associated with them. In this view, language and thought are identical. In its more moderate sense, language partially influences thought because the culture of a society influences its language. The writings of both Sapir and Whorf do not specifically commit them to a particular position on this issue.
Many scholars believe, based on their interpretations of his writings, that Whorf committed to a strong version of linguistic determinism; that is, that language determines thought and, consequently, thought is not possible without language. Scholars have challenged this strong determinism view on both theoretical and empirical grounds. Some scholars criticize the strong version of linguistic determinism from the perspective of causality; that is, how does one determine whether language has affected thought or thought has affected language? In order to make such a determination, one must separately observe thought and language, an observation that is virtually not possible. Additionally, they argue, if there is no thought without language, then how did language develop initially? A third criticism concerns translatability; that is, scholars argue that although languages may differ in the way they express certain details, a concept can always be passed on between languages, contrary to what a strong version of linguistic determinism would hold. While it may be true that the sense or connotation contained in a word may be lost in translation, the fact that the concept can be translated supports a more moderate view of the relationship between language and thought. Fourth, there is the issue of codability, or how many words it takes to express a concept or term in one language. Those who support the strong version of linguistic determinism argue that the fact that a culture has only one word for something that would take others ten words to express must mean that different thinking occurs. However, other scholars indicate that this does not mean that two people see the world differently; rather again, codability illustrates the idea of language partially influencing thought. Finally, there is the theory of universals, attributed to Noam Chomsky, that argues that there are deep structures common to all languages. In this view, all cultures are related and have similar realities.
Given the above criticisms, few scholars today would accept the strong formulation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Most scholars subscribe to a moderate or weak form of linguistic determinism, one that posits that language influences thought but does not determine it. This view accepts the principle of linguistic relativity; that is, that there is a close relationship between the structure of a language and the culture that uses that language. In this view, language influences the way we think and it influences us to look at the world in a certain way.
Linguists and anthropologists have long recognized the importance of language to culture. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis explains that different cultures understand and appreciate the world in different ways and that language is the vehicle to express that difference. Today, while linguists and anthropologists generally agree that language influences thought, they do not believe that it determines thought. However, scholars continue to examine how language influences thought. Therefore, as a theory of linguistic relativity, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis remains a significant and substantial contribution to the fields of linguistics and anthropology.
- Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: Harper Collins.
- Sapir, E. (1949). Culture, language, and personality: Selected essays. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Whorf, B. Lee. (1962). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press.