Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

R. S. Badhesha Spring 2002

      It is often thought that the reality expressed in spoken word is the very same as the reality which is perceived in thought.  Perception and expression are frequently understood to be synonymous and it is assumed that our speech is based on our thoughts.  This idea presumes that what one says is dependant of how it is encoded and decoded in the mind.   However, there are many that believe the opposite: what one perceives is dependent on the spoken word.  To the followers of this idea, thought is dependant on language.   Linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf are known for their part in the popularization of this very principle.  Their collective theory, know as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or more commonly the Theory of Linguistic Relativity, holds great significance in the scope of all communication theory.  The theory also fulfills the criteria, which essentially determine its workability.

     The Theory of Linguistic Relativity holds that: one’s language shapes one’s view of reality.  It is a mould theory in that it “represents language as a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast” (Chandler, 2002, p.1).  More basically, it states that thought is cast from language-what you see is based on what you say. 

     The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis can be divided into two basic components: Linguistic Determinism and Linguistic Relativity.  The first part, linguistic determinism, refers to the concept that what is said, has only some effect on how concepts are recognized by the mind.  This basic concept has been broken down even further into “strong” and “weak” determinism (The Sapir-Whorf Hypotheses, 2002, p.1).  Strong determinism refers to a strict view that what is said is directly responsible for what is seen by the mind.  In an experiment done by two Australian scientists, Peterson and Siegal, this view of determinism is shown to be supported.  In the experiment, deaf children view a doll, which is placed a marble in a box.  The children then see the marble removed and placed in a basket after the doll is taken away.  They are later asked where they believe the doll will look for the marble upon returning.  Overwhelmingly, the deaf children with deaf parents answer correctly (that the doll will look in the box).  The deaf children with non-deaf parents answer mostly incorrectly. 

     The experiment showed clearly the relationship between deaf children whose parents have communicated with them through complex sign language and their being able to get the correct answer.  The children, having grown up in an environment with complex language (American Sign Language) recognized that the doll would probably look to where she had placed the marble.  The other children, who had not grown up in a stable linguistic environment (their parents not being hearing impaired and thus not being fluent in ASL) were not able to see the relationship.  These results lead the experimenter John R. Skoyles to believe that the Sapir-Wharf Hypothesis was correct according to strong determinism (Current Interpretation…, p.1-2).

     The other view on determinism, weak determinism, recognizes that there is indeed some affect on perception of one’s language, but that this is not as clear as in strong determinism.  For instance, in weak determinism language does not define one’s view of the world, whereas, in strong determinism this view is defined strictly by language.

  The second division of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is linguistic relativism.  This part of the hypothesis can be defined: “distinctions encoded in one language are unique to that language along,” and that “there is no limit to the structural diversity of languages” (The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, p.1).  As stated by Sapir himself:

     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…The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built on the language habits of the group…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (as cited in Litteljohn, 2002, p. 177).


This view of cognition can be more simply defined as meaning: the language which one is brought up in (socially exposed to and taught) is the language that that person will think and perceive the world in.  

          Linguistic relativity opens the window to the realization that all languages do not translate to each other.  One such example is of the Punjabi word “joot.”  This word in its most literal translation to English means the “unclean,” “not pure,” or “with-germs” (as in half eaten food).  No matter how many definitions one tries to construct—“joot” cannot be translated in its full meaning.  This brings to mind that notion that language is relative, thus the same word can have different meanings for different people and these subjective meanings let rise varying cognitions.  Linguist Ferruccio Rossi Landi paraphrases “that the formal relationships of language exert an influence on the rest of social life and on the way of thinking of the speaker of that language”(Language As Work & Trade, 1983, p.114).

          Indeed language does have an affect on thinking and the Sapir-Wharf Hypothesis very pragmatically presents this.  The first concept provided within the theory, linguistic determination, makes sense when applied to reality.  In actual thought one does indeed perceive concepts and objects in accordance to the words used to describe them.  In a personal experiment I individually asked a group of my peers what they saw (in their “minds-eye”) when I said the word “table.”  More than half of them saw a dinning table, a few saw a coffee table, and one saw a mathematical table.  This showed me that although all of the responses I received had specific names (dining table, coffee table, etc.), their naming was triggered by one broad word: table. 

     After determining that this portion did indeed make good sense to me I continued my inquiry into the second portion of the theory, linguistic relativity.  I then went and asked an elderly relative of mine from India if they were aware of a word for coffee table in Punjabi (my ethnic language) and the response was “no.”  There is no word for coffee table…so if they were asked to visualize a coffee table when they were younger and still in their birth nation they would never have cognitively recognized a coffee table (considering they were monolingual).  There is only one word for table, the word “mech,” and it refers to a dining table. 

          The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis addresses the criteria that are set forth for evaluation and meets them very well.  The first of these criteria is that of the theoretical scope.  This criterion refers to the comprehensiveness of a theory.  When looking at what is included in the possible factors of analysis for this theory, one can see that there are many possibilities: all of thought to be more accurate.  Everything that is encoded and decoded and the language used by society and cultures used all are encompassed in this theory.

          Appropriateness is also achieved by this theory.  The theory expects that the language by which one is surrounded has an affect on how they decode and that encoding differs from language-to-language and cannot always be translated.  In experimentation this has been tested and then shown.  In my experiment, mentions earlier, I anticipated that the word “table” would bring to different minds--different images, all because of the receiver’s different experiences with the word.  This was then proven when I actually asked the question.  This experiment also supports the heuristic value of the theory.  At the time of my experiment I had not even thought of the heuristic value of the hypothesis.  The theory so interested me that I just did the experiment as a means of personally verifying its validity. 

          This validity, which was tested and found to be supported, is the next of the criteria.  From the experiment as well as from earlier, more notable ones it can be noted that this theory holds great value.  It also accomplishes correspondence validity because the theory is very observable and has been observed numerous times. 

          Furthermore, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is very simple and logically sound.  It makes complete sense that one’s atmosphere and culture will have an affect on their decoding.  Referring back to the elderly Punjabi, they did not grow up with coffee tables; therefore, it did not come to mind.  Likewise, in research done by the authors of the theory, many Indian tribes do not have word for certain objects because they do not exist in their lives.  The logical plainness of this idea of relativism clearly provides parsimony. 

          Finally, the Theory of Linguistic Relativity also achieves openness successfully.  The theory is shown as a window through which to view the cognitive process, not as an absolute.  It is set forth to be used in looking at a phenomenon differently than one usually would. 

          Pragmatically the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis makes sense.  It has the potential to be used in describing a great many misunderstandings in everyday life.  When one says a Pennsylvanian says “yuns” it doesn’t make any sense to a Californian, but when examines it is just another word for “you all.”  The Linguistic Relativity Theory addresses this and points out that it is all-relative.  This notion of relativity, passes beyond dialect boundaries, and delves into the world of language--from county-to-country and consequently from mind-to-mind.  Is language reality truly a ward of thought or is it thought which occurs because of language.  The Sapir Wharf Hypothesis very transparently presents a view of reality being expressed in language and thus forming in thought.  The principles outlined in it present a very pragmatic and even simple view of how one perceives, but the question is still debatable: thought then language or language then thought?


Chandler, D.  The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.  <>  (2002, March)

"Current Interpretations of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis."  <>  (2002, March)

Littlejohn, S. W. (2002). Theories of Human Communication.  New Mexico:  Wadsworth

Rossi-Landi, F. (1983). Language As A Work & Trade.  Massachusetts:  Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc.

 "The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis."  <>   (2002, March)