Challenges in Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language interests people based on how it is connected to the culture or the psychology of the people who are using it. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the structure of our grammar channels the way we think. Is this hypothesis true?

Image of different colored silhouettes of people with different colored speech bubbles above their heads.
Whorf’s idea was that a language does not keep you from being able to think of something, but it leaves you much more likely to think of it. (Image: melitas/Shutterstock)

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Benjamin Lee Whorf was an amateur linguist, who based on his work with his mentor– the linguist Edward Sapir, formulated the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The basic insight of Whorf, or the basic hypothesis of Whorf is that the structure of our grammar channels the way we think.

Whorf said, “We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.”

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Impact of Language on Thoughts

This explicit idea was specified by Whorf in various places, as by his mentor Edward Sapir, who was in agreement with Whorf in basic outline that the idea here is not that a language keeps you from being able to think of something, but that a language leaves you much more likely to think of it. That it makes something for you habitual rather than potential, as it was once put.

The idea was that the amount of greater awareness was enough to build a whole paradigm upon and worth sharing with the world. This was a strong hypothesis.

A man and a woman talking to each other in a business meeting.
Japanese and Korean speakers are more sensitive to hierarchy. (Image: Keisuke_N/Shutterstock)

Some people, who have grown up with another language, explore how their thought processes differ because of the other language. For example, the languages of a Japanese or Korean person have various levels of honorifics depending on who you are talking to and who you are talking about. The Japanese and Korean speakers thus often posit that that aspect of the language leads them to be more sensitive to hierarchy and respect distinctions than Westerners.

This is a very interesting idea. However, it hasn’t been proven. It is an idea whose time has not quite come, and where more research is necessary.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Concept of Time in Hopi

So, what are the problems with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? These are the things that are not heard about much. One of them is that Whorf was an amateur linguist, and part of his amateurism was such that his analysis of Hopi (the language of the Hopi Native Americans) was wrong.

According to Whorf, Hopi presumably has no markers for tense. That, for the Hopi, the issue of whether something is in the past, present, or future is not important. However, Hopi definitely has markers that situate actions and events into time.

More to the point, Hopi culture has time-based records, indicated with calendars and sun dials. There are all sorts of wonderful things about Hopi people, but the notion that they are floating around with this timeless sense is simply not true. They have time. Whorf was well-intentioned, but his analysis of Hopi has not stood up to linguistic analysis. So that’s the first problem.

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Intuitive Problems in Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

There is an intuitive problem in Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. For example, many languages mark the difference between how you have your eye versus how you have a chair. This alienable versus inalienable possessive marking is very common.

If you’re going to link that to culture, then you would expect that inalienable possessive marking would be most common in Western cultures, where the notion of personal property and the triumph of capitalism is prominent. However, it is the other way around. A language is much more likely to mark something like that if it is spoken in a jungle region.

So, if there is this correlation between language structure and culture, then how come inalienable possessive marking is very rare in any language spoken by a capitalist group of people?

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Differences in Vocabulary

Western European languages have or they tend to have grades of knowing. For example, in Spanish, when you’re talking about knowing a person, you use the verb conecer; and then if you know a fact, it’s saber. In French, that difference is connaître and savoir. In German, that difference is kennen and wissen. They are more aware of those two different kinds of knowing than English speakers.

People from different cultural backgrounds are seen standing beside each other holding colorful speech bubbles.
Speakers of different languages use different words to convey their thoughts. (Image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

Another example is that English speakers say scissors, pants, and glasses. Those things are all marked by the plural, but people know that it is a single object. It’s one thing; it doesn’t come apart. In Dutch, those same words are singular. So scissors is just schaar and glasses is just bril and pants is just broek. But does that mean that English speakers think of scissors as two things whereas Dutch speakers think of it as one? They don’t seem to think of the pants as more unitary than English speakers do.

Complications in Languages

Then there’s another problem, which is that very often the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is discussed on the basis of, for example, the Hopi and English speakers. Hopi, like most Native American languages, is extremely complicated.

The Chinese languages are very telegraphic, compared to a language like Hopi. Tense is marked sometimes, but often not. One might get distinctions, but in general, there is no careful cutting up of tense that is there in English. There is no such thing as a definite article or an indefinite article.

In general, if an English speaker translates Chinese word-for-word, he or she would almost start wondering exactly how the Chinese convey richness of information. They do, but it’s in a very different way than English. Chinese gets especially complicated in its tones, but not in terms of how much it packs into a sentence.

Common Questions About Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Q: What is Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

Benjamin Lee Whorf was an amateur linguist, who, based on his work with his mentor–the linguist Edward Sapir, formulated the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The basic insight of Whorf, or the basic hypothesis of Whorf, is that the structure of our grammar channels the way we think.

Q: What is the main idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

The main idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that the structure of our grammar channels the way we think.

Q: What is a basic problem with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is discussed on the basis of the Hopi and English speakers. Whorf was an amateur linguist, and part of his amateurism was such that his analysis of Hopi (the language of the Hopi Native Americans) was wrong.

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