Human ecology

Observations on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (SWH) was formulated by Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf. It deals with the relationship between thought and language. One of the problems with analysing the SWH is that it has many versions. I will describe some of these version later on in this section, but for the time being I will offer a working definition of the SWH.

SWH - working definition: different languages determine or shape the ways in which their users view the world.

According to Hawkes (1977, pp.29-31), Sapir first became interested in the differences between linguistic groups and their preceptions of the world through his work with Native American languages. He found that speakers of Native American languages had difficult in perceiving the phonetic distinctions in European languages. (Note: NS 1999) Sapir and Whorf extended these studies to the cultural background of these speakers, where they found further parallels. They concluded "that the 'shape' of a culture, or the total way of life of a community, was in fact determined by - or at any rate clearly 'structured' in the same way as - that culture's language." (Hawkes, 1977, p.31) It is informative here to include a quote from Sapir:

"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 built up on 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 here and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation." (Sapir, 1949, p.162, quoted in Hawkes, 1977, p.31)

Gross also quotes Sapir, a quote which overlaps with the above.

"We see and here and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. Philosophically, this is very radical, it undermines the possibility of man’s access to the real world" (Sapir, 1929, quoted in Gross, 1992, p.361)

In his criticism of the SWH, Pinker (1994, p.55-67) distinguishes between the positions of Sapir and Whorf. Whereas Sapir has the 'interesting observation' that 'speakers of different languages have to pay attention to different aspects of reality simply to put words together into grammatical sentences' (ibid. p.59), Whorf takes a more radical position:

"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, 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, quoted, Pinker, 1994, pp.59-60)

Any attempt to analyse the SWH must consider the possibility that Sapir and Whorf had different interpretations of their hypothesis. Thus, to test the hypothesis, the analysis must define which version it intends to test. Both Pinker (1994, p.57) and Gross (1992, p.362) define strong and weak versions of the SWH. However, their definitions do not completely correspond to each other. The situation is further complicated by other definitions from other authors. Later I will examine how these definitions are used in the context of various spheres of research. In the next sections I shall look at the experimental evidence for the SWH, but first I shall list some alternative definitions that have been proposed over the years.

Table: alternative definitions of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

(Defn. Language group is a group of people than speak the same natural language)
(Defn. SWH operates between Language Groups)

Classic version of the SWH. This version of the SWH considers relationships between different groups of language users. If a group of people uses language, A, and another group of people use language, B, then the SWH says the thoughts of A speakers will be different to the thoughts of language B speakers. This may be true w.r.t. perception of phonomes.

Experimental evidence for the SWH

Experimental evidence of the SWH is patchy to say the least. What is usually tested is whether natural languages affect the mental structures of their speakers (Note, this is not how the SWH is used within structuralism). Pinker criticises Whorf for his over literal translations (1994, p.61). The fact that testing the hypothesis might depend on ability of the testers to translate ideas has problems. This does not directly test the thoughts of different language speakers; it only tests the ways in which their thoughts are expressed in language.

A much quoted example is the number of Inuit words for snow. According to Pinker (1994, pp.64-65), Sapir initially stated that the Inuit have four roots for words concerning snow, but that over the years this figure has been inflated in its repetition. However, Hall lists 24 words for snow compiled be the Scott Polar Research Institute (Hall 1997b, p.23). Again we are faced with problems of translation. No information is given on how compound words are formed in Inuit. These 24 words are for ‘snow’ are matched against English phrase forms of ‘snow’, ‘snowstorming’, ‘snowing’, and ‘snowflake’. The Inuit word ‘qanik’ is given two English translations, ‘snowflake’, and ‘falling snow’.

A problem here is distinguishing whether language determines thought, or whether reality imposes these distinctions on language. On the one hand distinguishing whether Inuit language determines the ways that they look at snow; perceiving more varieties of snow than would be observed by an English speaker. On the other hand, whether Inuit language reflects the greater presence of snow in their environment. Pinker quotes Pullum saying that we would not by surprised if printers had more words for fonts than ordinary people (1994, p.65). However this does not in itself deny the SWH. The SWH would require that different languages that have developed within similar environments would ‘cut up’ that reality in different ways, and that the thoughts of their speakers would by determined or shaped by that language.

Studies on colour naming also have problems. Although different languages ‘cut’ up’ the visual spectrum into different categories, the speakers of this languages can learn other categories (Pinker, 1994, p.61-63) Gross, quoting similar experiments, concludes that colour diffierences are the "result of storage, or the way that information is coded, rather than a result of the direct influence of language on perception" (1992, p.363). Pinker notes that the physiology of our eyes makes colour perception universal throughout human societies. Our eyes do not see a light as a continuum, but have cones sensitive to three different pigments (1994, p.62)


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Created 15/11/99 Last modified 15/1/00