The linguistic relativity principle, formulated by Edward Sapir (1884–1936) and reﬁned by his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941), states that human thinking is highly dependent on the language spoken by the individual thinker. As language is our main tool for organizing our experiences, the argument goes, the language that we use imposes limits both on what is experienced and on how it is expressed. The structure of the language spoken by a social group, in other words, inﬂuences their understanding of reality and therefore how they behave with respect to it.
Whorf was inﬂuenced by his study of the Hopi language, which does not contain any words or grammatical structures corresponding to notions of time; the language makes no reference to past, present, or future. From this, Whorf argues that the metaphysics embodied in the Hopi language is fundamentally different from that encoded in Western European languages such as English. This suggests that the fundamental worldview of the Hopi, and therefore their underlying thought processes, must be different from ours. Another favorite piece of evidence for the hypothesis involves the observation that the Inuit language has many different words for snow, depending on such characteristics as color, density, etc., whereas we in temperate climates merely call it by one word.
This hypothesis has been a favorite among opponents of Noam Chomsky’s ideas of a universal, deep structure to human languages and an innate language acquisition device; if different languages reﬂect or even determine different understandings of the world, then there is no underlying universal grammar. Evidence for this argument (also known as linguistic determinism—the idea that what we are capable of thinking is actually determined by the structure of our native language), however, is rather sparse, while countervailing evidence is all around. Consider the ability to learn foreign languages, for example. If the thought processes involved in the foreign languages were in fact alien to the mind of a speaker of another language, such learning should present almost insurmountable difﬁculties.
More difﬁcult for Sapir-Whorf supporters, however, is the fact that their favorite pieces of evidence turn out simply not to be true. Ekkehart Malotki, an anthropologist who has studied the Hopi extensively, has shown that, contrary to Whorf’s claims, their language contains multiple tenses and words for units of time. Additionally, far from having no concept of time, they actually have fairly sophisticated methods for recording events. Regarding the Inuits, as far as anthropologists have been able to determine, there may be as many as a dozen words for snow, around the same number as in English: slush, melted snow, light powder, wet snow, dirty snow, or any of the other terms regularly heard during a New England winter. Outdoor enthusiasts may of course have more, as their activities may require them to distinguish among more varieties. Rather than suggesting that a cultural group’s language determines their worldview, the available evidence instead supports a weaker version of the Whorﬁan hypothesis: language does inﬂuence the way people perceive and remember their environment, and so it may predispose humans to look at the world in a certain way.
- Hunter, E, and Agnoli, F. “The Whorﬁan Hypothesis: A Cognitive Psychology Perspective.” Psychological Review, 98(3) (1991): 377–390;
- Malotki, E. The Making of an Icon. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
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