You are on page 1of 5

What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and how valid is it?

People today use language to express themselves and the world that surrounds them. Language is widely considered as a mechanism for communicating conceptual information stated Perlovsky (2009). But is it the very first use of language that makes them see and perceive everything around them the way they do? At the beginning of the 20th century the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that worlds and grammatical structure label reality (Thompson 1997). The way people think is strongly influenced by their native language. The structure of the language itself affects cognition; the linguistic system and the grammar can determine the comprehension of the world for a person. Being encouraged and helped by the linguist and cultural anthropologist Edward Sapir, Whorf formulated a theory called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativity, which states that language is the one that shapes the world of the speaker, making them experience the world in different manners. People only speak those words and think about those concepts that exist in their own language. Therefore, if a language lacks a certain idea or notion, a person in not able to describe or express it. If a language is rich in ways to express certain sorts of ideas, then the speakers of that language will habitually think along those linguistic paths said Thompson (1997:81). Whorf (1940) stated that the background linguistic system of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of the ideas. The hypothesis has two basic principles: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. Strong determinism is the extreme version of the theory, stating that language actually determines thought, that language and thought are identical. Linguistic relativity states that distinctions encoded in one language are unique to that language alone, and that "there is no limit to the structural diversity of languages". The linguistic relativity principle, or the SapirWhorf hypothesis,[1] is the idea that differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages will tend to think and behave differently depending on the language they use. The hypothesis is generally understood as having two different versions: (i) the strong version that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories and (ii) the weak version that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior. Whorfs hypothesis was mainly based on his studies on Hopi culture and language. He determined that their language differed greatly from any Indo-European

language, such as French or English, especially when expressing the concept of time. If English and other Indo-European languages have three main tenses, allowing us to express different ideas within a clear division of time. If in English we have the ability to distinguish between I am, I was and I will be, Hopi people have only one tense. Furthermore, their language, which comprised mostly nouns, also lacked the standard verb conjugations common to Indo-European languages (Eriksen, 2010:239). This suggests that Hopi dont pay much attention to time, but other things are more important to them. They perceive time in different terms; when they start an action (like weaving a mat), they dont think about the time when the action will be completed. Its not laziness, but their view of time, which lacks the concepts of past, present and future. They have two ways of thinking about time: an objective view which comprises their present, thing that exist now; and the subjective view to which belong things in the state of becoming. Things become in their own rhythm, according to its inner nature (Thompson, 1997:83). Whorf gives us the example in which the process of waving is actually one in which Hopis are preparing it to be a mat, helping it to reach its state when it has to, no matter if hours, days or weeks have passed. Moreover, their perception of the past varies from the Indo-Europeans. For Westerners the past is presented as a series of completed and separated events, a row of equal days. But, for Hopi people is more of an undifferentiated steam of events that have been accomplished, the present in the present (Thompson, 1997:83). Whorfs conclusion was that Hopis developed their language according to their own needs and actions; they were agricultural people who did the same actions again and again, and therefore didnt need future or past tenses. But, as their language developed, it shaped their view of the world surrounding them, making it very different than ours. The language of the Hopi was process-oriented and focused on movement, whereas English and other European languages were oriented towards thing and nouns in general (Eriksen, 2010:239). For many years, linguists and anthropologists have tried to discover if Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a valid one, but not coming to a conclusion yet. On one hand, they have proved that different tongues determine people to perceive the world in different manners. The studies of color are the most important experiments done in this sense. They wanted to compare the views of different people speaking different language about the very same characteristics of the surrounding world, belonging to the same reality. For instance, linguist H. A. Gleason compared the views of three distinct linguistic groups applied to the same color spectrum. English speakers identified six colors of the prism (purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red). If Bassa speakers (Liberian language) had only two terms to describe all the colors of the spectrum, speakers of Shona (a language spoken in Rhodesia), gave three manes for the colors: they grouped orange, red and purple under one term, yellow and yellower-green under another term and identified blue and green as being part of the same color group. Even though all these three groups have the same

physiological ability to distinguish the primary colors, their own language is the one that can make or not these differences. Each culture has created its own vocabulary, according to their activities and the world around them. Consequently, there are great variations in each language regarding gradations. As an example, people from the Hanuno culture can distinguish from ninety-two types of rice. If English speakers would, at the most, would set apart long grain from short grain and white rice from yellow and brown rice, Hanuno people would be able to differentiate them very easily. This stresses the importance given to rice by Hanuno people. Similarly, English speaking people have a lot of terms that Hanuno people would group under the term automobile. Subsequently, when a certain language is rich in terms belonging to the same concept, then the people speaking that language will use those words more frequent and talk about those concepts more easily, eventually modifying the speakers view at some degree. Specifically, the richness of German philosophical terms that other Indo-European languages like English or French lack. The German word Weltanschauung can be translated into English as philosophy of life or ideology, but it has no exact and precise one-word translation. On the other hand, anthropologists and linguists proved that also the use of certain words, within the same language, instead of others, have determined peoples world view. The best example is the euphemism used especially in Indo-European languages. Thompson (1997) exemplifies that people gave new and gaudy names to their place of business. Thus pawn shops became <loan offices>, saloons became <cocktail rooms>, pool halls became <billiard parlors> and barber shops <hair-styling saloons>. Another very illustrating example is in George Orwells novel 1984, a book which described the life of a totalitarian population in which life conceptions have been altered because of the language changes. Besides the slogans War is peace, Ignorance is strength and so on, the Ministry of Truth also makes drastic changes in the vocabulary, eliminating and replacing words. Thompson (1997:86) suggests that The very existence of so many different languages, each linked to a distinctive culture, is itself support of a sort for Whorfs hypothesis. Many linguists have tried to create an international language that everyone around the world would speak, but such a thing is impossible. As long as different cultures will have different concepts and will be this different in all their aspects, the establishment of an international language will never become reality. In other words, the structure of a language controls both thought and perception. Being described as certainly one of the most fascinating theories created by the modern mind (Thompson, 1997), the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has become popular only in the 1950s. We can say that it is comparable in some ways to Einsteins

theory of relativity (Thompson, 1997), giving the fact that it was and still is a famous theory that keeps linguists and anthropologists in continuous research. Bibliography: Eriksen, T. H. 2010. Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. 3rd edition. London: Pluto Press Kay, P. and Kempton, W. 1984. What Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? in American Anthropologist. 86 Koerner, E. F. K. 1992. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: A Preliminary History and a Bibliographical Essay in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. 2 Perlovsky, L. 2009. Language and emotions: Emotional Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Neural networks. 22(5-6) Rik, P. 2011. Proceedings of a Colloquium on the Sapir-Whorf Hypotheses. Stuttgart: Walter de Gruyter Thompson, D. 1997. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: words shaped by words in: Spradley, J. and D. W. McCurdy (eds.). Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Longman Whorf, B. L. 1940. Science and Linguistics in Technology Review. 42(6)

Essay word count: It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication and reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.' - Edward Sapir (1884-1936)'s 'The Status Of Linguistics As A Science', written in 1929 Whorf developed an hypothesis on the relationship between language and the nonlinguistic world which has enjoyed great influence in anthropology (Eriksen, 2010:239). It postulates that there is an intimate connection between the categories and structures of a language and the ways in which humans are able to experience the world and express their world-view to others (Eriksen, 2010:239). Whorf believed there was an intrinsic connection between the life-world of a people and its language; that every people will develop the linguistic tools it needs to solve tasks perceived as necessary, and that the language of a people will therefore be a significant source of knowledge about their more of thought, their cosmology and their everyday life (Eriksen, 2010:240).

We cut up natureorganize it into conceptsand ascribe significances as we do, largely because of absolutely obligatory patterns of our own language. (Whorf)