Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis



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The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of Linguistic Relativity:
Sapir: "The real world is to a large extent unconsciously built up upon the language habits of the group .... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation."
Whorf: "The structure of a human being's language influences the manner in which he understands reality and behaves with respect to it."
In the 1930's, Benjamin Lee Whorf, a student of Edward Sapir, did an intensive study of the structure of the language of the Hopi Indians of Arizona and compared it to that of a number of European languages. According to Whorf, European cultures are organized in terms of space and time, while Hopi culture emphasizes events. To speakers of European languages, time is a commodity that

occurs between fixed points and can be measured. Time is said to be "wasted" or "saved"; an army fighting a rear-guard action tries to "buy" time; a television station "sells" time to an advertiser. People in the European tradition keep diaries, records, accounts, and histories; their economic syster emphasize wages paid for the amount of time worked, rent for the time a dwelling is occupiea, interest for the time money is loaned.


Hopi culture has none of these beliefs about time, but instead thinks of it in terms of events. Plant a seed - and it will grow. The span of time the growing takes is not the important thing, but rather the event of growth follows the event of planting. The Hopi is concerned that the sequence of events in the construction of a building be in the correct order, not that it takes a certain amount of time to complete the job. That is why the building of a Hopi house, adobe brick by adobe brick, may go on for years.

Whorf's brilliant analysis of Hopi placed common-sense beliefs about language and thought on a scientific basis - and it also seemed to support the views that man is a prisoner of his language. Whorf concluded, "language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas .... We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages."


Whorf's comparative study of Hopi and English grammar led him to the conclusion that the contrasting views of the speakers of these languages resulted from contrasts in their languages. He believed that, linguistically speaking, no human being is born free; his mind was made up for him from the day-, he was born by the language of his speech community. He suggested that all their lives, English, speakers have been tricked by their language into thinking along certain channels - and it is small consolation to know that the Hopi have also been tricked, but in a different way.

Edward Saphir and Benjamin Lee Whorf are the best known modern exponents of the arguments that our language determines our thoughts. Here is an extract from Sapir's Language and Environment:

"Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of their society.... The fact of the matter is that the real world is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distant worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached."

Whorf's theories about the relationship between culture and language were greeted enthusiastically by some scholars and attacked or treated warily by others. The weakness of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as it came to be known, is the impossibility of generalizing about entire cultures and then attributing these generalizations to the languages spoken. The absence of clocks, calendars, and written histories obviously gave the Hopis a different view of time then that found among speakers of European languages. But such an observation is not the same thing as proving that these cultural differences were caused by the differences between Hopi and European grammars.


In fact, an interesting in time reckoning is not characteristic solely of European cultures, but can be found among speakers of languages as different as Arabic, Chinese, and Maya. And, on the other hand, thousands of unrelated speech communities share with the Hopis a lack of concern about keeping track of time. To attempt to explain cultural differences and similarities as a significant result of the languages spoken is to leave numerous facts about culture unexplained. The great religions of the world - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism - have flourished among diverse people with sharply different grammars. Islam, for example, has been accepted by speakers of languages with grammars as completely different as those of the Hamito-Semitic, Turkish, Indo-Iranian, Tibeto-Burman, and Malayo-Polynesian families. And the reverse is true as well. Cultures as diverse as the Aztec Empire of Mexico and Ute hunting bands of the Great Basin spoke very closely related tongues.
After his painstaking analysis of such differences between Hopi and European languages, Whorf asked the question that was central to his research. Do the Hopi and European cultures confirm that their languages conceptualize reality in different ways?
And his answer was that they do.

Nevertheless, attempts have been made to prove the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, such as one experiment, which used bilingual Japanese women living in San Francisco who had married American servicemen. The women spoke English to their husbands, children, and neighbours, and in most everyday speech situations; they spoke Japanese whenever they came together to gossip, reminisce, and discuss news from home. Each Japanese woman thus inhabited two language worlds - and according to the predictions of the hypothesis, the women should think differently in each of these worlds. The experiment consisted of two visits to each woman by a bilingual Japanese interviewer. During the first interview he chatted with them only in Japanese; during the second he carried on the same discussion and asked the same questions in English. The results were quite remarkable; they showed the attitudes of each woman differed markedly, depending upon whether she spoke Japanese or English. Here, for example, is the way the same woman completed the same sentences at the two interviews:

When my wishes conflict with my family's,
it is a time of great unhappiness. (Japanese)

I do what I want. (English)


Real friends should,

help each other. (Japanese)

be very frank. (English)

Clearly, major variables in the experiment had been eliminated, since twice the same person in the same location of their homes interviewed the women, and they discussed the same topics - with but one exception. And that sole exception was language. The drastic differences in attitudes of the women could be accounted for only by the language world each inhabited when she spoke.


Many linguists now-a-days are wary of the Shapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Attempts to confirm the hypothesis, such as the experiment with the Japanese women, are usually regarded as fascinating examples rather than as universal truths about the way speech communities view the world. Neither Whorf nor any of his followers has proven to everyone's satisfaction that differences between two speech communities in their capacity to understand external reality are based entirely or even over­whelmingly on differences in their languages. Wharf overemphasized one point (that languages differ in what can be said in them) at the expense of a greater truth (that they differ as to what is relatively easy to express in them). Languages, rather than causing cultural differences between speech communities, seem instead to reflect the different cultural concerns of their speakers. The history of language is not so much the stories of people mislead by their languages, as it is the story of a successful struggle against the limitations built into all language systems.

And finally, here’s an interesting qualifier (or counter-example) to the Whorfian hypothesis by R. Wardhaugh

"The most valid conclusion to all such studies is that it appears possible to talk about anything in any language provided the speaker is willing to use some degree of circumlocution. Some concepts are more "codable", that is, easier to express, in some languages than in others. The speaker, of course, will not be aware of the circumlocution in the absence of familiarity with another language that uses a more succinct means of expression. Every natural language provides both a language for talking about every other language, that is, a metalanguage, and an entirely adequate apparatus for making any kinds of observations that need to be made about the world. If such is the case, every natural language must be an extremely rich system which readily allows its speakers to overcome any predispositions that exist."

The passage using the Japanese women above suggests that the use of a particular vocabulary may lead us to see the world in a certain way. There are numerous examples of the kind of vocabulary differences mentioned in the second paragraph; including the well-worked example of the many different words the Inuit use to distinguish between different kinds of snow. The suggestion is not that if we do not have a word for something we are unable to see it, but that having a word for something in the real world makes it much more likely that we will be consciously aware of it than of something for which we have no word - the richer the vocabulary, the greater the perceptual discriminations we can make.


The following short passage from Whorfs own writings reinforces the notion that our language­systems impose our view of the world:

"....[T]he categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic system in our minds."

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