The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Term Paper, 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Language - A Definition
2.1 Sapir's Definition of Language
2.2 Whorf's Definition of Language

3. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

4. Illustration of the Hypothesis on the basis of given data

5. Criticism on the Hypothesis

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Learn a new language and get a new soul.”

(Czech Proverb taken from Jandt, 1995: 101)

This Czech proverb indicates that there has to be some connection between a language and the way people think, behave and perceive the world around them. This relationship between language, thought and reality has always been a fascinating subject for linguists and philosophers. Special attention was paid to it in the 20th century when Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf published their opinions to this subject. Whorf forms the main part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, because he was introduced by Sapir to his general approach to linguistics and then extended it in his beliefs. The term “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” was first introduced by J.B. Carroll and states in general that a human’s language shapes his perception of reality or in other words, that the world as we know it is largely predetermined by the language of our culture (Jandt, 1995: 93). Occurring differences between languages do also represent the basic differences in the worldview of different cultures (Jandt, 1995: 101).

In this survey a general introduction to the hypothesis will be given by Sapir’s and Whorf’s definition of language. Furthermore the basic assumptions of the hypothesis will be conveyed. With the help of data taken from different languages these assumptions will be illustrated in detail. Finally also attention will be paid to criticism on the hypothesis.

2. Language - A Definition

Although Benjamin L. Whorf was a student of Edward Sapir their definitions of language vary in some points. But through their definitions it becomes clear what the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is about. I want to begin with Sapir’s assumptions on language because Whorf’s one results from it and goes a step further.

2.1 Sapir's Definition of Language

In general language is concerned as the primary way in which people communicate with each other. It is “a system of symbols that can be strung together in an infinite number of ways for the purpose of communicating abstract thought” (Henslin 2004: 40). These symbols are shared within the whole speech community, otherwise communication within this culture would not be possible, because all individuals must agree on the meaning of every symbol. This agreement on the concepts which organize nature is implicit and not stated explicitly, but it is obligatory to enable communication in one culture (Holmes, 2001: 324). Culture has two definitions. The first one concerns civilisation, which means the knowledge of arts, literature and proper lifestyle, whereas the second definition is more important for linguists: “Each civilization has its own culture” (Lyons, 1981: 268) which is interdependent on language and thought. Together language and thought express the culture’s mentality and consciousness. This leads directly to Sapir’s assumptions on language, namely that “language is a medium of expression of our society. Because we can only see and hear and percept what is coded by our language into categories” (Lyons, 1981: 270).

Sapir states “language is a purely human and noninstinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntary produced symbols.” (Sapir, 1921: 8). Language is not an inherent, biological function like, for instance, to walk. Every human will one day start to walk whether he is surrounded by society or whether he is not. But no one knows language from birth. It is learned from those who raised the newborn and gave him/her an impulse to talk (Jandt, 1995: 93). Furthermore the general way of walking is the same in every social environment whereas speech, that means language, differs from society to society (Sapir, 1921: 1). Language is universal because all human groups have languages (Henslin, 2004: 40). Language conceptualizes the world of humans and provides the categories in which humans think.

This categorization dictates the different languages' structures and is responsible for different perceptions of the world. The process of categorization becomes clear when different prototypes for the same concept in different languages are regarded. For example, the concept of a bear covers other items in the Eskimo society than in a European society. An Eskimo would think of a white polar bear whereas a German would think of a brown bear.

Sapir excludes from language all involuntary articulations of humans, for example interjections, as well as of animals because each speech element that is regarded as such, symbolizes a concept. It takes reference to a further experience and is always significant. These elements of speech, concepts, must be associated with whole groups of experiences which are simplified and generalized before a symbolic inventory for communication can be made up. Therefore, "differences in languages are merely differences in modes of expressing a common range of experiences, rather than corresponding to differences in the experiences themselves" (Sapir, 1921: 218). A particular meaning has been attached to a particular speech symbol, to a sound. If it is then “accepted by the speech community as an identity” (Sapir, 1921: 13) communication becomes possible. Language becomes the only way to perception of our environment and consists of an "arbitrary system of symbolism" (Sapir, 1921: 7). Through the simplification of personal experiences into an objectified reality language makes incommunicable experiences communicable and therefore links its speakers together. So thinking and perceptions is shaped and expressed by language. This leads to the assumptions that it determines our consciousness and perception of events and objects (Henslin, 2004: 42). Without language reality cannot be adjusted to. It is "a guide to 'social reality' ", which "powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes" (Sapir, 1929: 162).

“At best language can but be the outward facet of thought on the highest, most generalized, level of symbolic expression. To put our viewpoint somewhat differently, language is primarily a pre-rational function. It humbly works up to the thought that is latent in, that many eventually be read into, its classifications and its forms; it is not, as is generally but naïvely assumed, the final label put upon the finished thought.” (Sapir, 1921: 15)

Thought is shaped by language. Although language and thought are from Sapir’s point of view not evidently the same, they are very similar and the one cannot exist without the other. Therefore thought can be defined as the "highest latent or potential content of speech, the content that is obtained by interpreting each of the elements in the flow of language as possessed of its very fullest conceptual value.”(Sapir 1921:14/15)


Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Proseminar Sprachwissenschaft: Western Linguistics in the 20th century
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Sapir-Whorf, Hypothesis
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Renate Giesbrecht (Author), 2008, The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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