Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a theory propounded by two American linguists, Edward SapirOpens in new window and Benjamin L. WhorfOpens in new window, as a medium to study the close relationship between language and thought. To consider the nature of their interrelatedness, Sapir and Whorf pose the question:

Do we think first and then use words to express our thoughts, or do the words we use influence the way we think?

In their observation, the language we use shapes our thoughts and does not merely reflect them. Their theory, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, suggests that, because different cultures speak different languages, the world is perceived differently by different cultures. The implication is that language restricts each language community to a particular view of the world.

The word “snow” is often used as an example. English has only one word to describe all types of snow. But EskimosOpens in new window, for whom the ability to describe and talk about fine distinctions between different types of snow could mean the difference between life and death, use several words to describe, for example, snow on the ground, falling snow, snow drifts, hard snow, soft snow and so on. Likewise, many African languages do not even have a word for snow because snow does not fall on most of the African continent.

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Whorf (1966) suggests that Eskimos perceive different types of snow because their language allows them to do so. Other scholars have opposed this view by arguing that Eskimos have many words for snow simply because there is a need (survival) for them.

A second type of example that Whorf uses to substantiate his theory relates to his study of the Hopi language used by some North American Indian communities. The Hopi language has limited tenses and makes no distinction between time and space.

There is, for example, no word for “future”; time is always “approaching”. EnglishOpens in new window, however, has many tenses and it is common to look at events from the point of view of when they happened. It has been suggested that, because of his chronological orientation, an English-speaking child could more easily understand history, while the Hopi language would enable a child better to understand the theory of relativity (Hybels and Weaver 1989).

If we accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, then learning a language is not simply a matter of mastering the mechanics of speech or acquiring a list of concepts. By learning a language a child acquires words that have meaning in his culture and which shape the way he thinks and behaves. He also learns to direct his attention to particular aspects of the environment that are important for his culture. LanguageOpens in new window thus not only provides members of a community with a means of communication; it transmits and perpetuates the perceptionsOpens in new window that community has of the world.

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