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In linguistics, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (SWH) (also known as the "linguistic relativity hypothesis") postulates 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. Although known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, it was an underlying axiom of linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and student Benjamin Whorf.

The hypothesis postulates that a particular language's nature influences the habitual thought of its speakers. Different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. This idea challenges the possibility of representing the world perfectly with language, because it acknowledges that the mechanisms of any language condition the thoughts of its speaker community. The hypothesis emerged in strong and weak formulations.


The position that language anchors thought may be traced to Wilhelm von Humboldt's essay Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium ("On the comparative study of languages") published in 1836.[1]

This notion has been largely assimilated into Western thought. Karl Kerenyi began his 1976 English language translation of Dionysus with this passage:

The interdependence of thought and speech makes it clear that languages are not so much a means of expressing truth that has already been established, but are a means of discovering truth that was previously unknown. Their diversity is a diversity not of sounds and signs but of ways of looking at the world.[2]

Franz Boas

The origin of the SWH as a more rigorous examination of this familiar cultural perception may be traced to the work of Franz Boas, who is often credited as the founder of anthropology in the United States. Boas was educated in Germany in the late 19th Century at a time when scientists such as Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann were attempting to understand the physiology of sensation.

One marked philosophical current then apparent was a revival of interest in the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant opined that knowledge is the result of concrete cognitive work on the part of an individual person—reality ("sensuous intuition") is inherently in flux, and understanding results when someone takes that intuition and interprets it via their "categories of the understanding." Different individuals may thus perceive the same noumenal reality as phenomenal instances of their different, individual concepts.

In the United States, Boas encountered Native American languages from many different linguistic families, all of which were quite different from the standard Semitic and Indo-European languages then studied by most European scholars. Boas realized how greatly ways of life and grammatical categories may vary from locality to locality. As a result he came to hold that the culture and lifeways of a people are reflected in their language.

Edward Sapir

Sapir was one of Boas's star students. He furthered Boas's argument by noting that languages are systematic, formally complete systems. Thus, it is not this nor that particular word that expresses a particular mode of thought and behavior, but the coherent and systematic nature of language interacting at a wider level with thought and behavior. Whilst his views changed through time, towards the end of his life Sapir held that language does not merely mirror culture and habitual action, but that language and thought are in a relationship of mutual influence, verging upon determinism.

Benjamin Whorf

Whorf refined this idea and engendered precision by examining the particular grammatical mechanisms by which language influences thought. He framed his discursive thrust thus:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. 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 [...] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.[3]

Despite criticism of his hypothesis as monocausal and deterministic, Whorf sought to insist that thought and action were linguistically and socially mediated, and not monolithically determined. In doing so he opposed what he called a "natural logic" position which held, according to him, that "talking, or the use of language, is supposed only to 'express' what is essentially already formulated nonlinguistically".[4] On this account, he argued, "thought does not depend on grammar but on laws of logic or reason which are supposed to be the same for all observers of the universe".[5]

Whorf's close analysis of the differences between English and (in one famous instance) the Hopi language raised the bar for an analysis of the relationship between language, thought, and reality by relying on close analysis of grammatical structure, rather than a more impressionistic account of the differences between, say, vocabulary items in a language. For example, "Standard Average European" (SAE)—i.e., Western languages in general—tends to analyse reality as objects in space: the present and future are thought of as "places", and time is a path linking them. A phrase like "three days" is grammatically equivalent to "three apples", or "three kilometres". Other languages, including many Native American languages, are oriented towards process. To monolingual speakers of such languages, the concrete/spatial metaphors of SAE grammar may make little sense. Whorf himself claimed that his work on the SWH was inspired by his insight that a Hopi speaker would find relativistic physics fundamentally easier to grasp than an SAE speaker would.

Influence and reactions

As a result of his status as a student and not as a professional linguist, Whorf's work on linguistic relativity, conducted largely in the late 1930s, did not become popular until the posthumous publication of his writings in the 1950s. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis influenced the development and standardization of Interlingua during the first half of the 20th Century, but this was largely due to Sapir's direct involvement. In 1955, Dr. James Cooke Brown created the Loglan constructed language (Lojban, a reformed variant of Loglan, still exists as a living language) in order to test the hypothesis. However, no such experiment was ever conducted.

Linguistic theories of the 1960s—such as those proposed by Noam Chomsky—focused on the innateness and universality of language. As a result Whorf's work fell out of favor. An example of a recent Chomskian approach to this issue is Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct. Pinker argues from a contravening school of thought that holds that some sort of universal grammar underlies all language. The most extreme proponents of this theory, such as Pinker, argue that thought is independent of language, and that language is itself meaningless in any fundamental way to human thought, and that human beings do not even think in what is called "natural" language, which is to say in any of the languages that we actually speak or write, but rather, we think in a meta-language that precedes any spoken language; this language of thought is called "mentalese". Pinker refers to "Whorf's radical position," and argues vehemently against the Whorfian idea that language contains thought and culture, going so far as to declare, "the more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make." (1994, p. 60)

A more Whorfian approach is represented by George Lakoff, who has argued much of language is essentially metaphor.[6] For instance, English employs many metaphorical tropes that in one way or another equate time with money, e.g.:

  • spend time
  • waste time
  • invest time

A Whorfian interpretation would be that this usage influences the way English speakers conceive the abstract quality of "time". For another example, political arguments are shaped by the web of conceptual metaphors that underlie language use. In political debates, it matters a great deal whether one is arguing in favor of the "right to life" or against the "right to choose"; whether one is discussing "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers". See Framing (social sciences) and Political Correctness.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s advances in cognitive psychology and anthropological linguistics renewed interest in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Today researchers disagree—often intensely—about how strongly language influences thought. However, this disagreement has sparked increasing interest in the issue and a great deal of innovative and important research.

Experimental support

The most extreme opposing position—that language has absolutely no influence on thought—is widely considered to be false (Gumperz: introduction to Gumperz 1996). But the strong version of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, that language determines thought, is also thought to be incorrect. The most common view is that the truth lies somewhere in between the two. Current linguists, rather than studying whether language affects thought, are studying how it affects thought. Earlier, the bulk of the research was concentrated on supporting or disproving the hypothesis; the experimental data have not been able to disprove it. (Lucy 1992; Gumperz & Levinson 1996)

Investigation into the recall of linguistic entities confirms that the brain stores associations between semantic concepts (like the idea of a house) and phonetic representation (the sounds that make up the word "house"). The initial sounds are more important for recall purposes than later sounds. Relationships between semantic concepts are also stored, but indirect relationships between unrelated concepts can be inadvertently triggered by a "bridge" through a phonetic relationship. For example, the recall of the idea of a house can be sped up by exposure to the word "Home" because they share the same initial sound.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Linguistic determinism

Among the most frequently cited examples of linguistic determinism is Whorf's study of the language of the Inuit people, who were thought to have numerous words for snow. He argues that this modifies the world view of the Eskimo, creating a different mode of existence for them than, for instance, a speaker of English. The notion that Arctic people have an unusually large number of words for snow has been shown to be false by linguist Geoffrey Pullum; in an essay titled "The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax", he tracks down the origin of the story, ultimately attributing it largely to Whorf and suggesting the triviality of Whorf's observations. See Eskimo words for snow.

Numerous studies in color perception across various cultures have resulted in differing viewpoints.[7] A recent study by Peter Gordon examines the language of the Pirahã tribe of Brazil. According to Gordon, the language used by this tribe only contains three counting words: one, two and many. Gordon shows through a series of experiments that the people of the Pirahã tribe have difficulty recounting numbers higher than three (Gordon, 2004). However, the causal relationship of these events is not clear. Critics have argued[How to reference and link to summary or text] that if the test subjects are unable to count numbers higher than three for some other reason (perhaps because they are nomadic hunter/gatherers with nothing to count and hence no need to practice doing so) then one should not expect their language to have words for such numbers. That is, it is the lack of need which explains both the lack of counting ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary. Moreover, a more recent study suggests that the Pirahã have a basic understanding of geometry despite their language.[8]

Fictional presence

  • George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a striking example of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity in fiction, in which a language known as Newspeak has trimmed and supplanted Modern English. In this case, Orwell says that if humans cannot form the words to express the ideas underlying a revolution, then they cannot revolt. All of the theory of Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words. For example, bad has been replaced by ungood, and the concept of freedom has been eliminated over time. According to Nineteen Eighty-Four's appendix on Newspeak, the result of the adoption of the language would be that "a heretical thought ... should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words."
  • Jack Vance's science fiction novel The Languages of Pao centers on an experiment in modeling a civilization by tweaking its language. The future planet of Pao, inhabited by peasant cultivators who bow passively to absolute monarchy and are prey to foreign invaders, creates three castes—of warriors, merchants, and technicians—each with a specifically-tailored language designed to instill the appropriate skills and mindsets. As a result the planet overcomes its foreign military invaders and economic exploiters, but becomes dangerously divided into mutually-hostile castes - and this is overcome by developing yet another language, a "pastiche" which combines elements from the languages of the three castes as well as the planet's original language, this pastiche becoming the language of the reunified, versatile society.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's novella "Gulf," the characters are taught an artificial language which allows them to think logically and concisely by removing the "false to fact" linguistic constructs of existing languages.
  • In Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune and its sequels, the Principle of Linguistic Relativity first appears when Lady Jessica (who has extensive linguistic training) encounters the Fremen, the native people of Dune. She is shocked by the "violence" of their language, as she believes their word choices and language structure reflect a culture of enormous violence. Similarly, earlier in the novel, her late husband, Duke Leto, muses on how the nature of Imperial society is betrayed by "the precise delineations for treacherous death" in its language, the use of highly specific terms to describe different methods for delivering poison.
  • Samuel R. Delany's novel Babel-17 is centered on a fictional language that denies its speakers independent thought, forcing them to think purely logical thoughts. This language is used as a weapon of war, because it is supposed to convert everyone who learns it to a traitor. In the novel, the language Babel-17 is likened to computer programming languages that do not allow errors or imprecise statements.
  • Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash revolves around the notion that the Sumerian language was a programming language for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter program which he calls a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different tongues as a protection against Asherah.
  • In Iain M. Banks's science fiction series, the Culture has a shared language, Marain. The Culture believes (or perhaps has proved, or else actively made true) the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language affects society, and Marain was designed to exploit this effect. A related comment is made by the narrator in The Player of Games regarding gender-specific pronouns in English. Marain is also regarded as an aesthetically pleasing language.
  • Linguist Suzette Haden Elgin's science fiction novel Native Tongue describes a patriarchal society in which the overriding priority of the oppressed women is the secret development of a "feminist" language, Láadan, to aid them in throwing off their shackles. Elgin has written extensively in defense of the "weak" form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which she prefers to call the "linguistic relativity hypothesis"), including a book titled The Language Imperative[9]
  • Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed takes place partly on a world with an anarcho-communist society whose constructed language contains little means for expressing possessive relationships, among other features.
  • Gene Wolfe's novel The Citadel of the Autarch (part of The Book of the New Sun) presents a counter-example to the SWH: one of the characters (an Ascian) speaks entirely in slogans, but is able to express deep and subtle meanings via context. The narrator, Severian, after hearing the Ascian talks, remarks that "The Ascian seemed to speak only in sentences he had learned by rote, though until he used each for the first time we had never heard them . . . Second, I learned how difficult it is to eliminate the urge for expression. The people of Ascia were reduced to speaking only with their masters' voice; but they had made of it a new tongue, and I had no doubt, after hearing the Ascian, that by it he could express whatever thought he wished."[10]
  • Ayn Rand's novel Anthem presents a collectivist dystopia where the word "I" is banned, and any that speak it are put to death.
  • Robert Silverberg's novel A Time of Changes describes a society where the first person singular is considered an obscenity.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith is able to do things that most other humans can't do, and is unable to explain any of this in English. However, once others learn Martian, they start to be able to do these things; those concepts could only be explained in Martian.
  • In Jorge Luis Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius the author discovers references in books to a universe of idealistic individuals whose language lacks the concept of nouns and has other peculiarities that shapes their idealism. As the story progresses the books become more and better known to the world at large, their philosophy starts influencing the real world, and Earth becomes the ideal world described in the books.
  • In Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea series (beginning with "The Word of Unbinding," 1964, and A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968), an ancient language (known as the Old Speech) exists in which every object has one and only one true name. In the mythology of the world, this is the language in which the world was spoken into existence; it is still spoken by magicians and dragons. Aside from the special case of dragons, it is not possible to lie in this language. A similar language system is used in Christopher Paolini's Inheritance trilogy (2002), in which a language exists known only as "the ancient language", spoken mainly by elves and magic-users. It is impossible to directly lie in this language (though it is possible to tell misleading truths, or in some cases use metaphor). While most characters in the novels believe that magic is only possible through speaking this language (and thus, can only cast spells which perform actions they can express), it is revealed in Eldest that the language is spoken only to keep spells under control, and magic can be used through thought, though this requires a great deal of focus to achieve the desired effect.
  • In Ted Chiang's "The Story of Your Life," language directly determines thought, Learning the written language used by alien visitors to the Earth allows the person who learns the language to think in a different way, in which the past and future are illusions of conventional thought. This allows people who understand the language to see their entire life as a single unchangeable action, from past to future.


Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached ... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir, 1958 [1929], p. 69)

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. 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. (Whorf, 1940, pp. 213–14)

... the real world is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. (Sapir, 1956)

Computer coding language conceptual correlate

Kenneth E. Iverson, the originator of the APL programming language, believed that the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis applied to computer languages (without actually mentioning the hypothesis by name). His Turing award lecture, "Notation as a tool of thought", was devoted to this theme, arguing that more powerful notations aided thinking about computer algorithms.[11]


  1. Gentner, et. al.; 2003: p.3 wherein the formative text is cited as: Humboldt, W. von (1836). On language: The diversity of human language-structure and its influence on the mental development of mankind (P. Heath, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1988).
  2. Kerényi, Carl; translated from the German by Ralph Manheim (1996). Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, xxxi, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  3. Whorf (Carroll; Ed.); 1956: pp. 212–214
  4. Whorf (Carroll; Ed.); 1956: p. 207
  5. Whorf (Carroll; Ed.); 1956: p. 208
  6. Lakoff, G; 1993: The contemporary theory of metaphor. In A. Ortony (Ed.) Metaphor and thought (2nd ed., pp. 202-251). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Berlin & Kay, 1969; Heider, 1972; Heider & Oliver, 1973; Rosch, 1974; Miller & Johnson-Laird, 1976.
  8. Roger Highfield Science, "Amazon tribesmen pass geometry test." The Daily Telegraph (LONDON) Jan 20 2006.
  9. Elgin, Suzette Haden. "The Link Between Language and the Perception of Reality," excerpted from The Language Imperative, 2000: Perseus Books, Template:ISBN 0-7382-0254-1
  10. Wolfe, Gene, The Book of the New Sun (New York: SFBC, 1998) pg. 776.
  11. Iverson K.E.,"Notation as a tool of thought", Communications of the ACM, 23: 444-465 (August 1980).


  • Kay, P. and W. Kempton (1984). "What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?" American Anthropologist 86(1): 65-79.
  • Whorf, Benjamin (John Carroll, Editor) (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press.
  • Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. By Edward Sapir, edited by David G. Mandelbaum. University of California Press.
  • Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. By John A. Lucy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Grammatical Categories and Cognition: A Case Study of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. By John A. Lucy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Edited by John Gumperz & Stephen Levinson. Cambridge University Press. 1996
  • The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. By Steven Pinker. Perennial.
  • "What are the nine Eskimo words for snow?", 1979-02-16, The Straight Dope — Cecil Adams answers this question by saying that due to the polysynthetic nature of Inuktitut (which he and his interrogator term "Eskimo"), it is impossible to pin down a number of words.
  • "Are there nine Eskimo words for snow (revisited)?", 2001-02-02, The Straight Dope — Cecil Adams responds to criticism by listing 15 of the words that English has for snow, concluding "Whatever may be said for the S-W hypothesis in general, the notion that it's supported by Eskimo words for snow is bunk.".
  • Lakoff, George. Women fire and dangerous things, 1987.
  • Lee, Penny. "The Whorf Theory Complex - a Critical Reconstruction", John Benjamins, 1996.
  • "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language", in Current Anthropology, August-October, 2005 (the piraha math experiments)
  • Golubkov, Sergey V. 2000. "The language model of personality and its perspectives within psychology". PsychNews International, 5 (1).
  • Golubkov, Sergey V. 2002. "The Language Personality Theory: An Integrative Approach to Personality on the Basis of its Language Phenomenology". Social Behavior and Personality, 30 (6): 571-578.
  • Gentner, Dedre & Goldwin-Meadow, Susan (Eds.) (2003). Language in mind: advances in the study of language and thought. Massachusetts, MIT Press (A Bradford Book). ISBN 0-262-57163-3

See also


  • Linguistic anthropology
  • Sapir-Whorf and programming languages
  • Language and thought
  • Eskimo words for snow
  • The Pirahã language lacks any words for specific numbers besides 'one' and 'two', and tribe members seemingly cannot count.
  • E-Prime—avoids the verb "to be" in terms of general semantics
  • non-sexist language—often promoted on the grounds that sexist attitudes are aided by sexist language
  • gender-neutral pronouns such as spivak pronouns and sie and hir
  • Newspeak - the crafted language used in George Orwell's 1984 to control the freedom of expression.
  • Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo


External links

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