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The evidence for and against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis Essay

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (SWH) states that there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it. (Wikipedia) The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was created by two American linguists, Edward Sapir and his student Edward Lee Whorf, in the early 1930s. It is considered to be a mould language theory, which represents language as a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast. (Bruner et al. 1956). At a very basic level, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis consists of two linked ideas, that of linguistic relativity, where the language you speak will influence your outlook on the real world, and a stronger idea of linguistic determination, where our thinking and interpretation of the world around us is established by the language we speak.

It was Edward Sapir who theorized that our viewpoint on the world is affected by the language. Whorfs theory was drawn from a study of Hopi Indians, which stated that their language has no concept of time as an objective being. From this, Whorf attempted to prove the linguistic relativity theory by looking at the way the Hopi rely on preparation, such as planning events in advance, does show a concept of time. In this case it is just time continuing along instead of matching the western way of dividing up time. He claimed that this concept of time matched their linguistic differences, which in turn shows language determining thought. Sapir and Whorf agreed that it is ones culture which determines language, which then determines the way our thoughts and experiences of the world are categorized.

One of the main problems with Whorfs theory is the idea of causality. Whorf cannot prove if the language determined the thought, or if it was in fact the other way around, with the thought determining the language. Another criticism of Whorfs theory is that of the concept of transferability. Here the problem if that if language does in fact affect thought, as Whorf stated, then logically some concepts would only be understandable in their original language, yet this has not been found to be the case when studying Indian languages, or translated poetry.

Stephen Pinker was one of the main critics of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, arguing that it is no more then a myth. ‘No one is really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims, but his limited, badly analysed sample of Hopi speech and his long-term leanings towards mysticism must have helped’ (Pinker 1994). Pinker points out that there have been studies by the anthropologist Malotki which show that the Hopis do in fact have a concept of time similar to the Western Worlds, with a calendar. Whorf also never met an Indian, and his analysis is wholly based on his translation of their language, meaning he cannot generalize his argument.

If Whorfs hypothesis that language determines thought is taken as fact, then logically, those without language would not think. If this is the case, then how do babies learn and develop language without thought processes? Pinker cited a case of Schallers, (1991), the case of Idlefonso. Idlefonso was an immigrant who had no language at all, yet he was numerate, and was able to be taught sign language. Once able to express himself through sign language, he could converse with Schaller, recounting experiences from before he could communicate. If Whorfs hypothesis were correct, the Idlefonso would not have been able to think, which was clearly not the case.

However, not all critics of Whorfs theory were negative. Carrol and Casagrande (1958) proved that Navaho Indian children were better at form recognition than western children, helping to confirm Whorfs hypothesis that language determines thought.

Several studies have also been performed which show support for the theory of linguistic relativity. Lucy and Shweder (1979) performed a colour memory test which was found to support Whorfs linguistic relativity hypothesis. Children with language to describe different colour hues found it easier to recognize the shades. When a language has terms for different shades of colour, the perception of that shade is affected. Lucy and Shweder found that colour recognition memory was directly affected by the words used to describe them, proving that language does affect thought in some way, but not to the extreme extent that Whorf suggested.

.One widely accepted criticism of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that the ideas which Sapir and Whorf came up with can be accepted on a basic level, but the extent to which Whorf and Sapir were correct cannot be resolved due to the changing broadness of their definitions.

Whorf and Sapir hypothesized that thought and language were extremely closely related, making statements ranging from the idea that language determines thought, to the idea that language has some bearing on thought, but that causality cannot be determined. Many examples are given from linguists to demonstrate whether they support or reject the hypothesis, with most linguists accepting a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. There have been no significant disproofs or proofs of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and the original is highly vague, leaving a lot of room for interpretation. This vagueness of the original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis means that no satisfactory conclusions can be drawn, and while some critics, such as Stephen Pinker think that the hypothesis is no more then a myth, there are many different viewpoints out there, both agreeing and disagreeing with this opinion.


Bruner, J. S., J. S. Goodnow & G. A. Austin ([1956] 1962): A Study of Thinking. New York: WileyCarroll, J. and J. Casagrande. 1958. “The Function of Language Classification in Behavior.” Readings in Social Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Lucy, J. and R. Shweder. 1979. “Whorf and His Critics: Linguistic and Nonlinguistic Influences on Color Memory.” American Anthropologist 81:581-615.

Pinker, Stephen (1994): The Language Instinct. Harmondsworth: PenguinSapir, E. (1929): ‘The Status of Linguistics as a Science’. In E. Sapir (1958): Culture, Language and Personality (ed. D. G. Mandelbaum). Berkeley, CA: University of California PressWhorf, B. L. (1940): ‘Science and Linguistics’, Technology Review 42(6): 229-31, 247-8. Also in B. L. Whorf (1956): Language, Thought and Reality (ed. J. B. Carroll). Cambridge, MA: MIT PressWikipedia, accessed 04.03.2007

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