The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or Linguistic Relativity, is an extremely controversial concept  which explains how language affects the way we think and perceive reality. It is often defined to include two “versions,” strong and weak. The strong version of the hypothesis claims that language determines thought, and that linguistic categories both limit and determine cognitive categories. In other words, the language we speak completely controls the way we think and perceive reality. The weak version claims that linguistic categories and usage can only influence thought and decisions, and do not determine them. In other words, language guides the way we think and perceive reality, but does not have enough power to “drive” them.

Linguists commonly agree that the use of the term “hypothesis” is inaccurate in this case for two reasons. The first being the fact that Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, the two linguistists that the hypothesis is named after, never co-authored anything or stated these ideas in such a form. The second reason is that this “hypothesis” cannot be tested or  using the scientific method. Regardless, it is still popularly referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

The idea of Linguistic Relativity is not new; it was first clearly expressed in the 1800s by thinkers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, who saw language as “the expression of the spirit of a nation.” In the early 20th century, the School of American Anthropology headed by Frank Boas and Edward Sapir also explored these ideas, but Sapir in particular opposed the idea of linguistic determinism (the idea that language limits and determines human knowledge and thought). Sapir’s student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, is seen as the primary proponent of this idea, publishing observations of how he perceived linguistic differences to have consequences in cognition and behavior. Cognitive Linguistic researchers such as Lera Boroditsky have made refinements to the “hypothesis,” claiming that language’s influence on thought is far more limited than the earlier broad claims made by Whorf and his colleagues. However, examples such as Boas’ study of the Eskimo words for snow and Whorf’s study of the Hopi conception of time still demonstrate some sort of linguistic influence on thought.


How is this idea perceived today, and what are some arguments for and against it?


One popular argument in support of this is the perception of time. Language structures differ immensely in so far as how reality and time is organized; there are “futured” languages,
“futureless” languages, languages that have no tenses and 1 verb form (Chinese), 17 tenses and 5 verb forms (Spanish) and even a language (Archi) that has an astounding 1,502,839 verbal forms. That’s about 25472 forms for every one that we have (geez!). All of these structural differences, linguistic relativity argues, may be shaping the way we perceive and act in reality. [To read more about Archi’s complex morphology, click here]

In English, French and Spanish for example, there are specific tenses to indicate whether an action is occurring in the future, the present, the past, the distant past, etc. More interesting perhaps is the specific vocabulary used to describe each of these tenses. English, for example, uses terms relating time to distance. We say “That was a short break,” or “You were gone for a long time.” In both examples, time is expressed as a measurable distance which some argue leads to a more precise perception of time. In contrast, languages like Spanish use terms relating to volume. We would say “Un descanso pequeño” (literally, a small break) or “Un gran descanso” (a big or large break).

These differences in the perception of time have a lot of interesting effects on how we perceive reality, and by extension how we act in it. In a 2012 Ted Talk, Keith Chen, a behavioral economist and Associate Professor of Economics at UCLA, presented a hypothesis on language’s effect on financial and savings habits. Specifically, he compared the savings behaviors of speakers of both futured and futureless languages, looking to see if how a language talks about and forces its speakers to think about time effects how much that speaker saves. Comparing these speakers after controlling for variables (country of birth / residence, demographics, income, education, etc.), Chen found that speakers of futureless languages are 30% more likely to save in any year, and are likely to retire with 25% more in savings.

Those against the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis argue that language is a reflection of thought, not the opposite. Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist and author, stated in 1995 that “when people think about spring they are not confused as to whether they are thinking about a season or something that goes boing. And if one word can correspond to two thoughts, thoughts cannot be words.” George Steiner in his book After Babel views the argument as fundamentally circular, claiming that “we argue that psychological differences give rise to linguistic differences, and we use linguistic differences to argue psychological differences.”

Linguists and Linguistic Anthropologists have generally backed away from asserting the strong form of this “hypothesis” (linguistic determinism), that linguistic habits completely determine a person’s worldview and ideas. They do, however – and demonstrably so – have an influence. The question of how much of an influence still remains unanswered.

Do you agree or disagree with this hypothesis? What other examples might there be of language affecting our perception of reality? How is this hypothesis evident in everyday life? Discuss in the comments below, and check back next week for a new edition of Links Interpreters Love.


-Written by William Cerkoney