Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: language shapes ‘reality’

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: language shapes ‘reality’

22nd October 2012

‘ 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.’

                                               Sapir 1949:162.


Adaptability is one of the distinguishing features of human intelligence and learning. This is the ability to invent, arrange, reorder and categorize ideals and conceptions of the world that suit ever-changing environmental and cultural situations. Language is one of the many consequences of this adaptability, each providing its own encapsulation of knowledge defined through millennia of cultural development, an inevitable guidebook designed by our ancestors. Sapir and Whorf in their analysis of language proposed a link between language, thought and culture, for which they have received both criticism and praise. The aim of this paper is to explore briefly the background behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis before turning to a number of examples presented by proponents both in favor and against the hypothesis validity.


Early Philosophers considered emotion and the question of free will. Science pursued the idea of causality, psychology added the nature-nurture debate, and linguistics the dual notions of linguistic relativity and determinism. Plato[1] taught that every discussion of generic ideals eventually leads to the debate of one or more general conceptions or ideas. Even should the discussion turn to the idea of a “red rose” it would require consideration into the color and nature of the item, not to mention the underlying arguments regarding its idealistic and essential form. This means that at some point or another the debate is likely to reach a stage where the requirement of an explicit definition of one or more of the general terms around which the discussion revolves becomes necessary. Every conceivable possibility, item, place or thought can be explained using language. At the same time, it is this language that is taught since birth that structures reality. John Lock proposed that, at birth, the mind can be likened to a blank slate or “empty” mind, which during an individuals progression in life is both filled and shaped by experience. It is these sensations and reflections which become the primary contributors to our ideas and that all ideas developed contribute towards experience (Uzgalis, 2007). In essence it is the ideas of the bi-directional effects of language, culture, thought and learning around which, contemplation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis ultimately hinges.

The ideas expressed by Edward Sapir are in themselves nothing new being a reflection of these and other works, particularly those of Wilhelm von Humboldt who said, “ der Mensch knüpft immer an Vorhandenes an (Man ever connects on from what lies at hand) (Humboldt 1848 cited in McGee 2004:52). Trager (1959:31) however provides this; “Man lives in the world about him principally, indeed … exclusively, as language presents it to him”. Both Sapir and Whorf used these ideas and developed them further, to refocus academic attention on the existence of the relationship between language, thought, and culture, an area where previously only language and thought had existed. Although the hypothesis developed was never formally written nor always supported with empirical evidence, their writings show that there is clearly a connection between language and thought such that languages involve profoundly different systems of logic and methods of dealing with reality (Perry 2003:171). Studies of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have allowed researchers to discern that it is in effect two propositions, which in their most elementary state could be summarized as a theory of Linguistic Determinism, that spoken language determines an individuals understanding and perception of the world, and a weaker theory of Linguistic Relativism, that language merely influences thoughts about the real world (Lenneberg 1953 cited in Alford 1978:486). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis therefore, theorizes that both thoughts and behavior are determined or partially influenced as a result of spoken language, and seeks to answer the fundamental question of, ‘what provides culture with its internal coherence?’ (Moore 2009:90). To Sapir, an individual is unaware of this connection between language and thought such that they become dependant on it without any clear choice, he writes that, “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 1949:162).

Controversy over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has elucidated vast amounts of research in a variety of disciplines, since theoretically this mode of thought becomes applicable to investigation within many diverse areas, such as the study of the extent to which poverty influences our lives and the cycle that is maintained as a result. In the social sciences, continued discussions into the nature/nurture debate, examines the effect of environment versus genetic makeup on the outcome of individuality. While in a ‘purer’ form, similar to those proposed by historical philosophers questions of free will and determinism continue to be debated, however these “philosophical problem of freedom and determinism [are] in reality a cluster of problems with different sources” (Dillman 1999:255). Regardless of the beliefs propounded by theorists from either camp, for or against, the hypothesis still remains inconclusively disputed or defended.

Edward Sapir as an anthropologist and a linguist, approached issues pertaining to the study of language in the same manner he would approach alternate topics and issues relating to aspects of foreign culture. It is possible to postulate that it was because of a holistic and openly objective view of language that he was able to consider the notion that the language used to engage and define experiences external to ourselves affected the way in which the world is viewed. In Sapir’s own words,

The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously 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…Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose (Sapir 1949:162).

Until this point on his career, the most profound influence on Sapir’s mode of thought had resulted from a study of the Hopi Indians conducted by Boas in 1911 (Moore 2012:82). Boas contended that the Hopi language has no concept of time as an objective entity, proposing that this must, therefore shape their conceptions of the world in which they lived, a notion upon which both Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf concurred fully (Moore 2012:89) Whorf’s own claim was that the Hopi language has “no words, grammatical forms, constructions, or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time’” (Whorf 1956:57). In context Whorf’s words should be taken to mean ‘our’ concept of time.

Whorf (1956:214) wrote that, “We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe…”. While he is credited with writing the less extreme of the two theories, that of the theory of Linguistic Relativity, he was also known, at times, to support the more absolute Linguistic Determination. Despite Whorf’s consideration that the connection between language and thought was also obligatory rather than a choice (Whorf 1956:213), both Sapir and Whorf agreed that it was culture that acts as the primary determinant of language, which in turn proscribes the methods used to categorize thoughts and experiences. Whorf felt that a conclusive method of proving this theory was to find an indisputable example of the ways in which the lives the Hopi were affected by their alternate linguistic concepts of chronological and spatial dimensions. Whorf propounded that the Hopi’s reliance on preparation demonstrated a linear continuation of time rather than divisional as is determined in Western cultures that, he claimed matches the linguistic differences (Wardhaugh 2010:230-233). Kottak (2009:310) explains this further specifically citing the example that the Hopi have no methods of distinguishing the idea of future, hypothetical or imaginary events in their language. Moore (2012:89-90) notes Whorf’s proposition of the range of building terms employed by the Hopi associated with the construction of their pueblos. Whorf claims that architectural terms used by the Hopi were often made in reference to three-dimensional solids and not in relation to three-dimensional spaces as if often employed in the English language. These, according to Whorf were clear proof of language determining thought. The difference between languages, Whorf states, “is not those of sounds and signs but those of differing worldviews” (McGee 2004:52)

Even though contemporary advocates of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are now generally few, the heaviest criticisms occurred following attempts made by researchers to try to discern exactly what the hypothesis is stating. The problem is that the strength of conviction of the hypothesis varies dependant on its occurrence, leading to some ambiguity over strength and direction. Pinker (1994 cited in Bogdashina 2010:105), a particularly vocal opponent of the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses, criticizes Whorf’s translation stating that no one can be certain how Whorf developed his preposterous claims, but “his limited, badly analyzed sample of Hopi speech and his long-term leanings towards mysticism must have helped[2]”. Pinker (2000,2004 cited in Moore 2012:91) points to the works of the anthropologist Malotki (1983) who noted the presence of verbal constructs of the Hopi language, which Whorf contended, were absent. Wardhaugh (2010:233) also notes the findings of Malotki who claims that Whorf’s findings on “the grammatical structure of the Hopi are either dubious or incorrect”.

The relationship of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to notions of codability is also frequently denounced. These arguments may hold some validity since inter-linguistic transmission of concepts is possible, even if it does require some degree of circumlocution. This argument provides that regardless of the number of words, alternate linguistic structures transmit similar concepts using phrases instead of independent words, although some languages may require additional words to relay an exact meaning. In defense of this argument is possible to cite a number of examples, such as (1) Whorf’s research on the number of Inuit words for snow. He claimed that as a result of snow being an integral part of daily life, and the multitude of uses that the Inuit have for it, the perception of snow must some how be different between the Inuit and individuals living in a less or non snow-dependent environment (Cole and Scribner 1974:45). (2) The proposition that Hopi explanations for everything that fly’s, from airplanes to mosquitoes (with the exception of birds), is covered by the use of a single word (masa’ytaka) (Crystal 2007). Whorf theorizes, that this may be construed to exhibit a decrease in importance of this aspect of an individual’s environment (Sapir 1968d:90 cited in Moore 2012:88). This concept of codability, or the numerical vocabulary requirement of expressing one concept or term in an alternate language, has similarly been used to provide ‘proof’ for Whorf’s arguments. The “proof” focuses on the idea that any culture whose linguistic development is such that, a single word has been advanced for something that would require numerous in another, perceives greater importance of that “thing” in terms of their everyday lives.

Schlesinger (1991:18), failing to uncover a corresponding connection between the linguistic evidence provided by Whorf and other cultural or cognitive concepts, attacked the evidence supporting Whorf’s thesis statement, he argued that the “… existence of such linguistic diversities is insufficient evidence … of a correspondence between language … and cognition and culture, … [or] for the determinist claim of the latter being determined by the former”. “Whorf” he says, “occasionally supplies the translations from a foreign language into English, and leaves it to the good faith of the reader to accept the conclusion that there must have been a corresponding cognitive or cultural phenomenon” (Schlesinger 1991:27). It is the requirement of the reader therefore to link notions of thought and behavior in order to infer proof of linguistic differential.

Another criticism of the hypothesis is the notion of causality, since it requires a measurement of human thought. Following along the ideas provided for the strong version of linguistic determinism, adherence to this line of thought would also require an agreement with the idea that thought is not possible without language (Perry 2003:171). The ability to measure an individual’s thought and worldview is a task virtually impossible without compromising the research data, resultant of the influence of language, another variable in the study. Researchers therefore appear to compensate for this by, contending that the study of behavior can be concluded as a direct link to thought. Further problems occur in broaching the question, where did language come from? This is similar to asking, ‘Which came first the chicken or the egg?’ From the view provided through linguistic determination, language and its derivatives would have to have been conceived from sources external to human society since, thought is impossible without language and before language there would have been no thought. Some believe that his form of cyclic argument leads to the hypothesis’s invalidation (Pinker 1994:59-67 cited in Wardhaugh 2010:236, Brown 1976:304 cited in Alford 1978:488). Furthermore, is it possible to determine whether language has affected thought, or if thought affected the language? Penn (1972:33 cited in Schlesinger 1991:30) surmises that this presents an “egocentric quandary, [where one is] unable to make assertions about reality because of doubting one’s own ability to correctly describe reality”. Advocates of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis should therefore recognize that their studies of ‘real-world’ linguistics become questionable when influenced by the mental categorization of experience.

While critics of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis assert that linguistic determination may be easily disproved, the more moderate Linguistic Relativity appears, in numerous cases, to have been proven to exist (see appendix 1). The primary reason for this is that it avoids the argument of causality by acknowledging the reciprocal affects of language and thought. Additionally, a broader vision of language in context is taken, such that social interaction and discourse are included, in this sense, as a part of language. Outwardly, the relativity argument is not typical of Sapir and Whorf’s vision of language as a confining entity, rather a contributor with the potential to affect the mind, thought and reality of any given individual.

“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 1956:213)

Concepts of translatability provide another standpoint for critics of the extreme adherence to this hypothesis who claim that, if thought is directly affected by language, then it would stand to reason that some concepts would be unintelligible in any language other than the language in which they were first ‘thought’. Chandler provides limited argument toward this in the account of Pablo Neruda who complains, that when translated, his poems become ‘lost in translation’, as the words no longer correspond in terms of ‘vocalization, or in the placement, or the color, or the weight of words’, despite their sense of meaning remaining the same (Plimpton 1981:63 cited in Chandler 1995).Since tangential evidence may also be used to support this argument translatability and codability are concepts that could be applied to media as well as language. If for example, the word ‘language’ is substituted for the term ‘media’ a similarly phrased argument would read that, a difference in media influences or determines an individuals thoughts or perceptions over and given topic, an outcome that is frequently regarded to be true. Considering the use of visual media as opposed to language, what becomes ‘lost in translation’ is more of an artistic matter, and therefore more easily studied since greater limitations are placed on the subjective visual experience. The problem here lies with the fact that, under most circumstances, poetry, humor and other creative communications excluded, where ideas may in fact be ‘lost in translation’, languages and linguistic concepts are highly translatable. Adhering to the stringent concepts of linguistic determinism, thoughts and ideas in one language would not be understood in another as a result of different ideologies binding speakers and their worldviews.

Of the studies performed supporting the existence of linguistic relativism, arguably the most famous experiment is that conducted by Carmichael, Hogan & Walter in 1932. During this experiment, test subjects were exposed to various shapes, each with one of two descriptions vocalized prior to exposure (Carmichael, Hogan & Walter 1932). For example, the test subject might see an image similar to this (the vocalized words are printed in this case underneath the image):

Following exposure to the image and description, test subjects, when prompted to draw what they had seen, adjusted their images to more greatly resemble the description encountered during the exposure period, hence displaying linguistic influence over thought, or more specifically memory (Carmichael, Hogan & Walter 1932). Despite this acting as a kind of limited proof of the theory, evidence also exists proving the contrary, an example of which is the use of color terms or codability in experiments to determine linguistic relativity. Researchers claim that all languages have between two and eleven color terms and that if language directly influenced thought, the languages without a label for any given color, identifiable in another language, would be unable to distinguish that one as distinct from any other (Alford 1978:491). Test results however indicate that everyone is capable of identifying the same eleven focal colors even under circumstances where no term exists for them in a language (Cole and Scribner 1974:49; Lucy 1997:299). It appears though, that in some cases verbal labels, or a lack thereof may affect memory.

In a test conducted by Brown and Lenneberg in 1954, research focused on how language categorization of the color spectrum affects the recognition of colors. Lenneberg reported that the study showed how terms of colors influence the actual discrimination such that test subjects from English speaking backgrounds were better able to re-recognize those hues that are easily named in English. This finding is clearly in support of the limiting influence of linguistic categories on cognition. In support of linguistic relativity, Schlesinger (1991:27) agrees explaining that, “…if codability of color affected recognizability, and if languages differed in codability, then recognizability is a function of the individual’s language”. Alternate observations also exist disputing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (see appendix 2), the majority of which support universalism rather than relativism.

Whorf’s vision of language and culture was such that he viewed it as two sides of the same metaphorical coin, believing that culture influences the structure and functions of a group’s language, which in turn influences the individual’s interpretations of reality. Indeed, discerning which came first the language or the culture is an impossible action. Despite Whorf’s recognition of the reciprocal influences existing between language and culture, he argued that, “since grammar is more resistant to change than culture, the influence from language to culture is predominant” (Whorf 1956:156). Language in this way reinforces existing cultural patterns while grammar provides the listener or speaker with a foundation for the structural importance that something has to a culture.

Despite the severe criticism that has been directed towards the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the arguments that it has never been comprehensively tested, the discourse that exists over methods, omissions and discrepancies or that proof remains inconclusive, the ideas that they presented followed both an effort and an achievement toward understanding the fundamental question of what provides culture with its internal coherence. The studies and writings of both Sapir and Whorf propose that this is derived from the worldviews that are shared by speakers of different languages and the reciprocal influences that are exerted upon each, language and culture.


Alford, DKH 1978 “The Demise of the Whorf Hypothesis (A Major Revision in the History of Linguistics)” Proceedings of the 4th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society (1978), pp. 485-499 <;

Bogdashina, O 2010 Autism and the Edges of the Known World: Sensitivities, Language, and Constructed Reality, Jessica Kingsley, London.

Carmichael, L, Hogan, HP & Walter, AA 1932, ‘An experimental study of the effect of language on the reproduction of visually perceived form’, Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 15, Feb 1932, pp. 73-86

Chandler, D 1994, ‘The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’, Adapted from the book The Act of Writing, Prifysgol Cymru, UK, [Online] Accessed: 12 October 2012, <;

Cole, M & Scribner, S 1974, ‘Culture and language’, in Culture and thought: a psychological introduction, John Wiley and Sons, New York, pp. 39-60.

Crystal, D 2007, The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, ENC1101, Miami-Dade College, Kendall Campus, Miami, Florida, [Online] Accessed: 28 September 2012, <;

Dillman, I 1999, ‘Free Will: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction’, Routledge, New York.

Kottak, CP 2009, Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity, 13th Edn. McGraw-Hill New York.

Lenneberg, EH 1961, ‘Color Naming, Color Recognition, Color Discrimination: A Re-appraisal’, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Volume 12, pp. 375-382.

Lucy, JA & Shweder, R 1979, ‘Whorf and His Critics: Linguistic and Nonlinguistic Influences on Color Memory’ American Anthropologist, Vol. 81 pp.581-615, [Online] Accessed: 30 September 2012, <;

Lucy, J.A 1997, ‘Linguistic Relativity’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 291-312.

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Schlesinger, IM 1991, “The Wax and Wane of Whorfian Views” in Cooper, R and  Spolsky, B (eds.) Influence of Language on Culture & Thought, Mounton de Gruyter, New York.

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Whorf, B.L., 1956 “Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings”, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts.

Appendix 1

Tests finding support for the Linguistic relativity Hypothesis

Lucy and Shweder’s color memory test (1979). Lucy and Shweder determined that influences on color recognition memory are mediated exclusively by basic color terms–a language factor. If a language has terms for discriminating between colors then actual discrimination/perception of those colors will be affected. (Lucy 1997:300)

Kay and Kempton’s language study (1984). They studied the effects of perceptual categorization as a function of color categories, finding that language is a part of cognition (Lucy 1997:300). However, under certain conditions they also reported findings of universalism of color distinction.

Dr. Peter Gordon’s Numeration Tests (2004). Gordon studied the Pirahã, an Amazon tribe with a population of less than 200, whose language contains no known markers for numbers greater “one,” “two” and “many”. Even the word that the Pirahã used to express “one” would correspond more closely to the use of  “roughly one” or a few, as opposed to the exact connotation of framed in other languages. His experiments displayed how available linguistic resources can alter the users reality. Gordon stated that, “whether one language chooses to distinguish one thing versus another affects how an individual perceives reality” (Melville, 2004)

Appendix 2

Tests finding support against the Linguistic relativity Hypothesis

Chomsky proposed what he refers to as ‘universal grammar’, supporting the position that linguistically all humans maintain similar abilities and though processes (Kottak 2009:309)

Osgood’s semantic differential (1964) suggested a universality of effective meaning systems. He proposed that this linguistic universality is “shared by all human beings regardless of their language or culture” and do in fact do organize experience and meaning along similar symbolic dimensions (Cole 1974:55-56).

Alford’s (1978:491) interpretation of Whorf contends that it was never Whorf’s intention for color spectrum perception to be used in defense of the principle of linguistic relativity. Alford states, ” In fact, he is quite clear in stating that perception (which he calls Jungian sensation) is clearly distinct from conception and cognition, or language- related thinking “.

Brown and Lenneberg (1954), who were among those pioneering the first researchers into the discovery of empirical support for the hypothesis Lucy (1997:299), now contend that there is greater evidence in favor of cognitive universalism rather than linguistic relativity (Schlesinger 1991:26). They chose memory as the process through which to relate cognitive processes to the linguistic variable of codability. This was later confirmed through cross-cultural application with the Zuni (Cole and Scribner 1974:44-46). Lenneberg later presented a paper (1961:375) in which he explained that these were “a special case in a more general phenomenon”.

Berlin and Kay’s color study (1969) determined a set of 10 universal focal colors beyond which differences only occurred toward the limits of color spectrum. They believed that their findings pointed toward the notion that regardless of language or culture, the eleven focal colors remain constant, “a significant disconfirmation of Whorf’s work” (Alford 1978:491). Even in languages with more limited color discernment, test subjects continued to be able to sort color chips based on the eleven focal colors (Cole and Scribner 1974:49; Lucy 1997:299).

Davies’ cross-cultural color sorting test (1998) concluded that data gathered revealed obvious patterns in the similarity of color sorting behavior between speakers of English, Russian, and Setswana. Davies argued that the data is conclusive of strong universalism.

James Cooke Brown’s (1955) Separation Language and Culture. He proposed the development of a new non-culture bound language (LOGLAN or logical language) to distinguish between linguistic causes and effects. Results of this testing continue to be gathered (Perry, 1999).

[1] Plato also addressed the ideas of determinism and reality; Plato 2008, ‘Book VII’, The Republic, ­ Trans. B. Jowett, Project Guttenberg, viewed 24 August 2012, <;

[2] As an example of such see: Whorf 1956:59-60.


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