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It’s Not All Relative: The Problem with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

What comes first, language or thought? A series of papers published in 1951 grappled with this very question and established itself in linguistic theory. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, proposed by American linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf is probably one of the most mainstream linguistic theories out there today, going so far as to set the stage for the 2016 film Arrival.

This linguistic theory has gone on to inspire studies in anthropology, sociology, and other related disciplines.

But as usual, time and the telephone game have largely stretched and changed this theory for the rest of us. It’s common for academic concepts to become simplified and watered-down over time. Because a powerful idea resonates in society, whether that person is a linguist or not. And this idea, the idea of language coloring our fundamental perceptions, is more than powerful.

Creating a theory to understand something as complex and nebulous as human thought can change how we view…well, everything.

Even as a wide-eyed student, from coffee more than curiosity, I found the idea of linguistic relativity romantic.

The problem is, language and thought are far more complex. And while an attractive idea, it isn’t the only theory on how these two functions relate.

Plus, not understanding the limits of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can lead to some pretty big blunders in how we view not just languages, but cultures and individuals.


What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Let’s start by decoding the general theory of linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

  • Language shapes our perception of reality
  • Thus, language affects our behavior

According to Benjamin Whorf, a different linguistic structure, such as differences in grammatical gender or words, can affect a person’s worldview. How we speak influences how we think and how we act. I say influence because the hypothesis does not say that human thought stems from language, or that a particular language requires a different thought process than another. Rather, the constraints of our language and native linguistic structure affect how we perceive events.

“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 (1958:69)

There were a few issues with this outlook, however. Namely that the linguistic analysis of the Hopi language used in the study was faulty, the comparisons are too broad, and the ease of translatability between different languages.

What is the opposite of linguistic relativity?

There’s no opposite of linguistic relativity, or the more strict language determinism, per se. However, the obvious counter-hypothesis would be that language does not influence thought. Like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this has yet to be proven.

For an in-depth comparison, The Language Hoax by John H. McWhorter is a wild ride highlighting every problem with the hypothesis. If you want a contrasting, super-supportive opinion, Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass is usually the go-to pop linguistics choice.

So, which comes first, language or thought?

Based on research, thought came first. You can, for example, imagine sensations, smells, and pictures rather than use language. And while using a linguistic structure may make thought easier or more fluid, it’s hardly the only choice a human being has when thinking. We can perhaps consider language to be “advanced thinking”.

How much does your language determine behavior?

For a brief time in the 70s and 80s, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) claimed to be a treatment that used language in clinical and therapeutic settings to treat a number of mental disorders. Nowadays it’s more or less debunked, or at least heavily discredited.

At the same time, what we say matters, and how we communicate might influence behavior or reactions as well.

Psycholinguist John Lucy compared two strikingly similar countries with different languages—Sweden and Finland. For example, he looked at a metric in which the two countries differed, despite similar legislation and governance. Finnish industry workers have a 31% higher accident rate than their Swedish counterparts. In analyzing the two languages, Lucy found that Swedish uses prepositions while Finnish relies on case endings.

In other words, those with Swedish as a native language may be more inclined to focus on the temporal organization of a process, as prepositions are clearer markers. Case endings, meanwhile, suggest the process components’ relationship to the worker.

Of course, even this remains an unproven hypothesis. Grammar is bound so tightly to thought and culture, that it’s nearly impossible to completely disentangle them. But in all likelihood, the influence that linguistic structures have on our behavior is minimal.


So, does language change how we see the world?

Yes and no.

A language likely influences how you will describe the world. But the thought processes, in many cases, are the same. Merely the avenue we have different.

However, if you know how a different language works, you can begin to recognize how arbitrary or, in certain cases, controlled, certain expressions are.

But there’s a huge misstep that’s easy to make. And that is equating language to expected behavior.

For example, you wouldn’t want to say that a native speaker of Japanese is incapable of showing their emotions just because the language leans towards indirect speech. Or that English speakers are inherently direct and rude due to the lack of the polite “you”.

Consider the following literal translations of “I am hungry”:

  • Japanese – お腹がすきました。- Onaka ga sukimashita – My stomach is empty [thus I am hungry].
  • German – Ich habe Hunger. – I have hunger.
  • Hindi – मुझे भूख लगी है। – Muhje bhook lagi hai. – Hunger strikes me.

None of these grammatical structures correlate directly to English. German, of course, is the closest, but German is also a very close cousin to English. Yet it’s unlikely any English speakers would consider it possible to “have” hunger. Hunger is a state, something you are, not an object.

Meanwhile, the Japanese and Hindi equivalents are significantly less direct. In Hindi, the speaker uses the object pronoun to refer to themselves (mujhe), while in Japanese, the personal pronoun is replaced or dropped in favor of mentioning the affected body part (the stomach).

The important thing to remember is that all of these directly mean one thing—I am hungry. While it’s true that Japanese and Hindi have different levels of politeness, the meaning of the phrase is the same in all three languages.

While it’s true that culture is linked closely with language, the two are not synonymous. We can learn a lot by understanding a different language from our mother tongue. But language is only the doorway into a new community, it is not the community itself. A human being cannot be reduced to a single aspect of their being—in this case, language.

What tests of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis really say

Many studies attempting to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or even general linguistic determinism, tend to focus on colors, as different cultures often have different basic color sets. A 1984 study between Tarahumara and English speakers highlights how having separate lexical terms for blue and green can make a difference in subjective thought.

In the experiment, participants were asked to determine the boundaries between green and blue based on three subjects in eight successive groupings. When using the word for the colors, English speakers exaggerated the boundaries between the two colors. Tarahumara speakers did not. However, when only required to use visuals, and not language, this subjective distortion between the two test groups disappears.

In a similar study, Russian and English speakers were asked to match different blue-colored blocks between two rows. Russians were a whopping 124 milliseconds faster.


But isn’t that because Russians have two shades of blue in their basic color set, making them more aware of the differences, rather than an over-arching cultural perception of reality?

And, the more cynical question, f most cases of known linguistic relativism have a limited influence on human thought, does this rule out its importance on society and reality?

Not at all.

Linguistic anthropology (a solid intro textbook is here) continues to be a valuable field, as language still tells us a lot about how we conceptualize society. While learning a particular language may not revolutionize reality, it can help us to be more conscious of how we describe and interact with the world at large.

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