ULG's Language Services Blog

The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Language's Effect on Cognition

This article was originally published in April 2017 and has been updated.

Language plays a big role in our lives. But can it affect the way we think?

So would say a dedicated Whorfian, arguing that the language we speak determines how we see the world and either restricts or bolsters our ability to understand it. The theory of linguistic relativity, often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, has garnered controversy since its origins in the early 20th century, igniting both arguments and interest among prominent linguists.

It’s not only the theory itself that has been criticized, but also its name. Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir were both well-known 20th century linguists, but they never actually published a work together on their eponymous “hypothesis.”

There are disagreements about each of the respective linguists’ “true” theories on the matter, too. Although both Whorf and Sapir were at least fair-weather proponents of the idea that was eventually named after them, it’s hard to pinpoint the precise position each man took on the issue.

Myths and unanswered questions aside, we do know the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis poses some engaging questions about the languages we speak and the way we perceive reality.

Determinism vs. Influence

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis posits that language either determines or influences one’s thought. In other words, people who speak different languages see the world differently, based on the language they use to describe it.

There are two differing strands of the hypothesis, “linguistic determinism” and “linguistic influence.” The former refers to the idea that a person’s language “determines,” or either restricts or enables their ideation. For instance, if a language lacks a word to define a certain concept, a linguistic determinist would infer that speakers of that language would not be capable of understanding that concept.

Conversely, if a person spoke a language that had multiple definitions for one concept, linguistic determinists would argue that he or she must have a better understanding of what’s being defined.

On the other hand, someone who is loyal to linguistic influence would explain that the language a person speaks has an impact on the way they think, but doesn’t inhibit or control their ability to comprehend experiences.

Numerous Terms For a Single Concept

One of Whorf’s best known arguments for linguist determinism stems from his study of the Hopi Indians, a Native American tribe from Arizona. Whorf believed that the tribe spoke without using phrases that referred to time, omitting past or future tenses. This lack of time terminology led him to believe that the tribe lived their life without abiding by the concept of time at all.

However, it was later determined that Whorf’s theory of the Hopi people speaking without tense phrases was incorrect.

Another popular example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes from the observation that the Inuit Tribe has many different terms for snow. The thinking, then, was that Eskimos had a better understanding, or more refined perception, of snow thanks to the fact that they had numerous ways to describe it.

This claim, along with many other Whorfian ideas, have been discredited and argued against by linguists of all stripes. For one, it could be contended that English speakers also have a great deal of terms for snow (sleet, slush, flakes, flurries, etc.) – why wouldn’t Whorf attribute this same understanding of snow to European speakers?

Great In Theory – What About Practice?

Today, it’s believed by many that there may be some aspects of perception affected by language, but the idea that a mother tongue can restrict understanding has largely been disagreed with.

Take the word schadenfreude, for example. The term is German, and means to take pleasure in another’s unhappiness. There is no translatable equivalent in English, but it wouldn’t be true to say English speakers had never experienced or would not be able to comprehend this emotion.

So, just because there is no word for schadenfreude in the English language, doesn’t mean English speakers are “restricted,” or less-equipped in their ability to feel or experience what that word describes. This logic seems to disprove Whorf’s theory.

On the other hand, there’s evidence that the language-associated habits we acquire do play a role in how we view the world. As Guy Deutscheraug points out in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article, this is especially true for languages that attach genders to inanimate objects.

Deutscheraug references a study done that looks at how German and Spanish speakers view different objects based on their gender association in each respective language. The results showed that in describing things that are referred to as masculine in Spanish, speakers of that language graded them as having more manly characteristics.

These same items, which used feminine phrasings in German, were seen by German speakers as containing effeminate characteristics.

The findings suggest speakers of each language have developed preconceived notions of something being more masculine or feminine, not due to the objects’ appearance or characteristics, but because of the way they categorize them in their native language.

Maintaining Relevance

Despite its age, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has continued to nudge itself into linguistic conversations, and even pop culture. The idea was just recently revisited in “Arrival,” a science fiction film that explores the ways in which an alien language affects human thinking.

And even if some of its most drastic claims have been debunked, the theory’s continued relevance says something about its importance. Ideas, theories and intellectual musings don’t need to be unequivocally true to remain in the public eye, but they do need to make us think to retain any sort of clout –and Sapir-Whorf has done just that.

The theory doesn’t only make us question linguistic theory, but also our existence itself, and how our perceptions might shape that existence.

There are generalities that we can expect everyone to encounter in their day-to-day life (relationships, work, love, sadness, etc.), but thinking about more granular disparities experienced by those in different circumstances, linguistic or otherwise, helps us to realize that there’s more to the story than ours.

And at the same time, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis reiterates the fact that we’re more alike than we are different, no matter what language we speak.