The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: A Critique

Neil Parr-Davies

'He gave man speech, and speech created thought –
which is the measure of the universe'
Shelley – Prometheus Unbound

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is in effect two propositions, which in a very basic form could perhaps be summed up as firstly Linguistic Determinism (language determines thought), and secondly Linguistic relativity (difference in language equals difference in thought). This topic of determinism and relativity can be applied to many areas – the study of to what extent technology influences our lives is termed the technological determinism debate. In psychology, discussion of this nature regarding the effect of environment and genetic makeup on our lives is called the nature/nurture debate. In a ‘purer’ form, there are philosophical questions of free will and determinism. In a historical context, 'The philosophical problem of freedom and determinism is in reality a cluster of problems with different sources' (Dillman 1999).

Dilman identifies firstly human emotions, and the early philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, which tried to deal with the question of free will in this context. The advent of Christianity then forced an examination of the idea of God’s foreknowledge of events, and moved the debate on. Science came next, bringing the idea of causality – which required further debate. Most recently, Psychology brought the nature-nurture question. To these I would add the relatively recent birth of linguistics as a science, bringing the linguistic relativity debate, and also the communications revolution, which has brought about the technological determinism debate. This is not a new debate, and neither is it anywhere near conclusion.

Edward Sapir was both an anthropologist and a linguist, who studied language in the same way he would treat any other part of a foreign culture. Perhaps it was this objective view of a foreign language that led him to theorise that the language we spoke affected our view of the world. In his 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' (cited in Ellis & Beattie 1986). This view was influenced mainly by a study of the Hopi Indians by Franz Boas in 1911, in which it was revealed that the Hopi language has no concept of time as an objective entity. Sapir’s view was that this must affect the way in which they conceptualise the world. His student Benjamin Whorf agreed. Interestingly, Whorf was not a linguist by trade, but a fire insurance inspector. He was drawn to the study of language when he started to notice that ‘empty’ fuel drums were perceived as less dangerous because of the connotations of the word ‘empty’, when in fact they were just as dangerous – being filled with explosive vapour. He eventually became a full time linguist and the application of his theories (which are generally understood to be the major part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has become known as Whorfianism. His idea for proving the linguistic relativity theory was finding a concrete example of how the Hopi’s lives were affected by their different linguistic concept of time. He claimed that the way the Hopi rely on preparation, announcing events well in advance, for example, showed a concept of time continuing along instead of being divided up as Western societies do, which matches the linguistic differences. This, according to Whorf at least, shows language determining thought, in other words Strong (or Extreme) Whorfianism. Additional support subsequently came from Carrol and Casagrande (1958). They proved that Navaho speaking children were better at form recognition than American children, apparently because Navaho has different word forms for different types of object.

This extreme Whorfianism has been heavily criticised, and now has few advocates. The most obvious problem is the idea of causality – how can one ascertain whether (if at all) language has affected thought, or if the thought has affected the language? A national ‘character’ (if such a thing truly exists) would be as much an influence on us as a national language. In the case of the Hopi and their excessive preparation – it is possible, and in fact, more likely, that they have just learnt over time that preparation makes things easier, especially in a harsh environment.

The second most obvious criticism of Whorfianism is Benjamin Whorf’s methods. Brown (1958) and Lenneberg (1953) pointed out that Whorf never met an actual Indian, so his assessments of their character must be somewhat vague, and also that his translations of Hopi sentences were done to seem as different as possible, to emphasise the ‘different system of thinking’. One of the most fervent critics of Whorfianism (in both extreme and moderate forms) is the linguist Steven Pinker: 'No one is really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims, but his limited, badly analysed sample of Hopi speech and his long-term leanings towards mysticism must have helped' (Pinker 1994). Pinker also debunks Whorf’s claims about time in the Hopi language. He points out that the anthropologist Malotki (1983) has found that the Hopi do have a concept of time very similar to ours – and in fact have units of time, and a sophisticated calendar. In addition, Whorf’s arguments on Hopi character are based on Hopi language, making his argument circular, and therefore useless.

Another criticism of extreme Whorfianism is the concept of translatability – if language affects thought, then presumably some concepts would only be understandable in the language in which they were first ‘thought’. There is evidence that this applies in poetry – Chandler (1995) quotes the poet Pablo Neruda lamenting the fact that when his poems are translated the words do not correspond in terms of

'vocalization, or in the placement, or the colour, or the weight of words'. However, he does admit that the sense of what he is saying remains the same. For a poet, the meaning is only half the poem. The remaining part is in how the poet sounds to the listener, or looks to the reader. Words are therefore chosen just as much for their shape or the noise they make when uttered as their meaning. What is ‘lost in translation’ here is therefore less of a linguistic debate, and more a musical or artistic one.

Skinner, a behaviourist with a completely different take on language, offers this: 'One has not accounted for a remark by paraphrasing what it means'. This may well have some validity – in the sense that there will always be more to any utterance than the sum of its parts. The point is, however, that the concept can always be passed on between languages even if it does require some degree of circumlocution, disproving the extreme Whorfian stance. The study of the nuances implied by the choice of certain words is a matter for semantics and pragmatics, although some languages may require more words than others to get the exact meaning.

This concept of codability, or how many words it takes to express a concept or term in one language, has been used by some to ‘prove’ Whorfianism – the idea being that a culture that has only one word for something that would take others ten must be more concerned with that thing in terms of their everyday thinking. Whorf quoted the fact that the Hopi have one word for everything that flies (insects, planes, etc), and Crystal uses the example of the Pintupi language – having one word (katarta) for 'the hole left by a goanna when it has broken the surface after hibernation' (Crystal 1993). How this proves a different thinking is less obvious. An English physicist would have one word for a concept that may take a page to explain, but we do not assume that the physicist sees the world differently because of his knowledge of this concept.

Pinker’s killing blow to linguistic determinism is found in the references to languageless adults. He cites the example of Idlefonso, who was observed by Schaller (1991). Idlefonso was an immigrant completely without language, who was still intelligent, numerate, and once shown sign language was able to fully recount experiences and converse with Schaller. If language completely determines thought, then this man would not have been able to think, which he clearly did.

Moderate Whorfianism, when applied solely to linguistics is a form of Linguistic Relativity. Whilst it is easy to disprove Linguistic Determinism, there are observable tests which show relativity to exist. It differs from the extreme stance in many ways – it avoids the causality argument by acknowledging the two-way effects – language affecting thought and thought affecting language at the same time. In addition, it looks at language in a much wider context – social interaction and discourse are as much a part of language in this sense. In essence, the relativity argument does not subscribe to Sapir and Whorf’s view of language as a prison, but as something that has the potential to affect mind, thought and reality.

The most famous experiment said to prove linguistic relativity is that conduced by Carmichael, Hogan & Waller (1932). Various shapes were shown to the subject, with one of two descriptions underneath it. For example, the subject would see this image:

This was presented with either the label 'the crescent moon' or alternatively 'the letter C'. When asked to draw again what they had seen later, the subjects invariably changed the drawing to become more like the description, therefore showing language influencing thought, or more accurately memory.

Whilst this does perhaps prove the theory to a limited extent, there is evidence for the contrary. Colour terms, for example, are often used in experiments to determine linguistic relativity. All languages have at least two colour terms, and at most eleven. If language were influencing thought then those languages without a verbal label for a colour that is named in another language would not pick that one out as distinct from any other hue. In fact, everybody picks the same 11 focal colours, irrespective of whether or not there is a term for them in their language. In some cases, memory is affected by the lack of a verbal label, but in the end, as Pinker points out, 'The way we see colours determines how we learn them, not vice versa' (Pinker 1994).

Moderate Whorfianism therefore has some validity in language, but is hardly of central importance. The same stance can be applied to other topics, however. Substituting the word ‘media’ for the word ‘language’, we arrive at 'Difference in media equals difference in thought'. This seems more explainable.

Translatability and codability are concepts that could be applied to media as well as language. Film, it is often said, is a parasitic medium, producing blockbuster adaptations of books, novels, TV shows, and cartoons, but then again, it is common to hear the phrase 'the film’s not as good as the book'. What has been ‘lost in translation’ here is less of an artistic matter, and more easily studied.

The beauty of the novel lies in the way the reader constructs their own mental landscape and imagery in which to set the book. Thus, there is more scope for the subjective visual experience. There is less scope however for the reader to understand the characters in a different way to the next reader, because of the fact that the emotions of the characters are set down in black and white. In a film, the emotions are shown only in the faces of the actors, something which no matter how skilled the actor, is still somewhat subjective. On the other hand, the incredible mental picture that the reader of a book may create is limited in a film to what can actually be filmed. Certainly there is no scope for one person to see the scenery of a film in a different way to the person sitting next to him. Some media must therefore be better than others for different purposes.

The famous Dylan Thomas work Under Milkwood is a text that has been made into a radio play, a television show, and a film. Perhaps the best medium for this is radio, for the sound is the major focus. The Welsh accent so necessary for full comprehension of (to borrow from Neruda again) the 'vocalisation, placement, colour and weight' of the words. On the other hand, does adding a visual element bring another level to the text, or does it merely limit the viewer’s own mental imaginings, and therefore lessen the experience?

In another sense, looking more at communications than media, it is interesting to note the comparison between Whorf’s proposals that one concept is easy to express in one language, but hard in another. In modern terms, with all the communication technology available to us, how do we choose email over fax, or telephone over text message or letter? Perhaps some things are easier expressed using the appropriate medium. A recent article in The Times claims that 'More SMSs are sent to flirt or attract the opposite sex than for any other reason' (Times 2000). So, perhaps there is Whorfianism at work here – the recipient will be less flustered or worried at receiving a flirtatious comment through the medium of a text message than he or she would be had the comment been said face to face, or on the phone.

The medium of print, especially newspapers is one that has connotations of respectability, and trustworthiness. We are more likely to accept some fact we are told in the paper than something we hear on television, for example. This is in a way an example of Whorfianism – different media equalling different mental treatment. This is used by advertisers to sneak ideas into our brains. Often, one will read what appears to be an article in the paper; 'Miracle cure for baldness discovered' for example, only to notice half way through the small printed ‘ADVERTISEMENT’ warning at the bottom. The theory is that if we read it in print in a paper, in the style of an article, we will assume automatically that all the claims are true, and that the product is indeed a ‘miracle cure’, or whatever is purported.

When examining the stance of extreme Whorfianism and it’s relationship to the media, one name alone dominates the field. Marshall McLuhan’s attitude to the media was that of technological determinism – he claimed that the growth in mass media was influencing and shaping society, and the human psyche. This wide-ranging stance is different to Extreme Whorfianism in that McLuhan saw this as an ongoing process – the growth of what he called the ‘global village’ would detribalise the nations of the world and progressively change our perspective on the world.

Whilst this is only one of the influences on the continuous shaping of society, it is an important one. The result does not always follow from the cause, however. Technology, like most things merely presents an opportunity to people, an opportunity that is as often as not ignored, or perhaps just used in a different way, depending on 'who uses it, who controls it, what it is used for, how it fits into the power structure, how widely it is distributed' (Finnegan 1975).

Somehow, the idea of technological determinism – more of a prediction in a way than a statement, seems more acceptable than linguistic determinism. It is hard not to see the advent of the communications revolution as something that will not affect us as a society – although where the linguistic determinists saw language as a prison, the technological determinists see technology as an enabler, not directly limiting our everyday thoughts and perception, but allowing us the possibility to adapt and evolve.


April 2001