Sapir- Whorf Hypothesis

About Edward Sapir

Edward Sapir was an American- Jewish Anthropologist and linguist, he was born on 26 January, 1884 in Lebork, in Poland. He developed a basic statement on the genetic relationship of Native American language. He is best known for classification of native American language, Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Anthropological linguistic.

Sapir’s Linguistic background

He become the one such student of Boas (Franz Boas, who inspire Sapir to work on Native American language) to develop most completely the relationship between linguistics and anthropology. So, Sapir studied the ways in which language and culture influence each other and that is how he became interested in the relation between linguistic differences and differences in cultural world’s view. This part of his thinking further developed by his student name Benjamin Lee Whorf.  Whorf developed the principle of linguistic relativity, which is later known as “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, this is how this theory came into being.

Sapir is also known as an early proponent of the importance of psychology to anthropology maintaining that studying the nature of relationship between different individual personalities is important for the ways in which culture and society develop.

Before Sapir, the method of historical linguistics to language of indigenous people considered impossible to apply, the reason being the indigenous people were believed to be more primitive than the Indo-European language. Hence, Sapir was the one who first proved that comparative linguistics methods will be equally valid if it will be applied to indigenous language.

According to Sapir in 1929, human beings do not live in the society alone. Language of the society predisposed certain choices of interpretation about how we view the world.

Whereas according to Whorf in 1930, we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. We categorize objects in the scheme laid by the language and if we do not subscribe to these classifications we cannot talk or communicate.

What is Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the theory which is determined by an individual’s thoughts and actions through the language spoken by an individual. This theory is led by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Aspects of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has two aspects and i.e.

  1. Linguistic determinism (it is known as strong version given by Sapir)
  2. Linguistic relativity (it is known as weak version given by Whorf)

Language determinism – it determines our thinking patterns, like the way we view and think about the world. According to linguistic determinism, language provides the framework for our thoughts and it is impossible to think outside of this frame. So, Sapir felt that people were at mercy of their language.

Linguistic relativity – the less similar the language the more divers their conceptualization, like different languages view the world differently. Therefore, the linguistic relativity interprets that different people see the world in different ways. For example; some people see only one kind of water, whereas, the other may see five different kind of water. Also, one community may be happy with ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’, while another may have ten different words in this domain of kinship words.

Thus, we can say that there is no natural or absolute way of labelling the world around us.

Advantage of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

  • Linguistic determinism does exert the great influence on patterns of thinking and culture.
  • Language may reinforce certain ideas and push them into attention.
  • In Linguistic relativity, there can be differences in the semantic association of concepts.
  • Coding of life experience in language is not exclusively accessible to everyone but only to members of that certain social group.
  • Linguistic structure does not constrain, what people think but only influence what they routinely think.
  • Language reflects cultural preoccupations.

Disadvantage of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

  • Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is self- conflicting. It claims that language determines thought and there is no limit to diversity of language.
  • If there is no limit to diversity, language cannot determine thought to a great extent and hence, it is called determination rather than influence.
  • And many universal claims that human thoughts are universal.

Therefore, according to Sapir it is quiet often 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 matter of fact is that the real world is to a large extent and unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. We see and hear and experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretations.

While, according to Whorf we dissect nature along with lines laid down by our native language. The categories and the types that we isolate from the world phenomena we do not find here 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 system in our minds.

We cut nature up, organize it into concepts and ascribe significance, as we do largely because we are parties to an agreement which organize in the way that an agreement which 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 can not talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.


2 thoughts on “Sapir- Whorf Hypothesis

  1. Obong eno 28 Aug 2022 / 9:06 am

    Language affects how we think, just realized that, thanks fir sharing

    Liked by 1 person

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