Metaphor and the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis

An Attempt to Explore and Integrate the Theory of Metaphor by Lakoff and Johnson and the Theory of Linguistic Relativity by Sapir and Whorf

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2010

32 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of contents




3.1.1 Gottfried Leibniz
3.1.2 Johann Gottfried von Herder
3.1.3 Wilhelm von Humboldt
3.1.4 Franz Boas
3.1.5 Edward Sapir
3.1.6 Benjamin Lee Whorf







In this paper I will discuss two different approaches investigating the nature of language and the relation between language and thought: (1) the Sapir-Whorf- hypothesis and (2) the metaphor approach of Lakoff and Johnson (1980). Both theories had a major impact on the scientific community when they were published and sparked important research but also major controversy and debate among many scholars. The main reason for their controversial reception was that both theories called into question the very foundation of the dominant view on language and thought, which is still very much alive.

The present paper is divided into six chapters. After this introduction, the second chapter will outline the traditional objectivist view of fixed meaning and metaphor, which is still prevalent in Western societies. In the third chapter I will briefly portray the Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis. The fourth chapter will deal with Lakoff and Johnson's approach to understanding language. In the following chapter, I reflect on both theory complexes, try to apply my theoretical knowledge and point out the similarities and differences of both approaches. Furthermore, I will try to suggest a few ideas around which both approaches could be combined. In the sixth and last chapter, I will briefly evaluate the seminar.

As already indicated above, the current paper will be shaped by the two central questions: Does language influence or even determine the way we think? How important is the concept of metaphor when investigating the everyday use of language?


Our Western culture is deeply affected by a view called objectivism. The commonsense view is that the purpose of language is communication and that language expresses thoughts that have already been there before their expression (Schlesinger, 1991, p. 8). The extreme nonconstructivist position is that cognition is understanding things exactly the way they are in terms of their inherent properties (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 122; Ortony, 1979, p. 14).

According to Ortony (1979, p.12 - 13), the metalinguistic resources which are normally used when talking about English reflect the so-called "conduit metaphor". This is a metaphor for communication falsely taken to be a direct description of the reality. According to it, languages are containers for ideas, thoughts etc. The speaker has to pack the ideas into the words and all the hearer has to do is to unpack the message and 'take out' what is in the words. The conduit metaphor ignores the crucial contributions of the hearer's and reader's knowledge and experience and wrongly assumes an objectivity that simply is not there. It also assumes that the meaning of a word is fixed - since it contains the meaning a speaker has put into it - and wholly ignores that the meaning depends on the context and on certain cultural entailments. The word simply is not a container in which meaning is entrenched. It ignores the fact that meaning is never disembodied, it is always meaning to someone (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 184). These false claims that are usually taken to be true again lead to inadequate, erroneous attempts to solve communication problems and to uncover the psychological mechanisms relevant to language comprehension (Ortony, 1979, p.12-13).

Gibbs (1994, p. 435) states that the claim that human beings have literal thoughts and that they understand the meaning of language literally has to be dismantled. "Our judgment that a particular word or sentence has a literal meaning is actually composed of a complex set of tacit knowledge that, among other things, is highly dependent on the context in which such judgments are made". Cognitive sciences should explore in greater detail the extent to which meaning that so far was taken to be literal is motivated by figurative thought, such as metaphor (Gibbs, 1994, p. 435).


3.1 Short history

The Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis can be seen as a reaction to the objectivist view. We do not understand things exactly the way they are, but through mental representations and concepts constructed by language. The search for a more adequate depiction of the relation between language, thought and culture has a long history. Its roots can be traced back to Herodotus (ca. 500 BC; Fishman, 1985).

3.1.1 Gottfried Leibniz

Gottfried Leibniz (1646 - 1716) is said to be an early precursor of the theory of linguistic relativity (Kramsch, 2004, p. 236). Dealing with the relation between language and culture, Leibniz observed some similarities between typical properties of the German language and typical traits of the German people. In his Monadology (1740/1930, p. 44) he writes

And in the concatenation and inner sequence of our periods we can observe the gait of a German, […] to whom a uniform, steady, and manly gait is peculiar.

In the Monadology, he laid out some insights and relations between language and thought on which the following thinkers might have built up.

3.1.2 Johann Gottfried von Herder

Leibniz was followed by Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744 - 1803). In his essay "Abhandlungen über den Ursprung der Sprache" (1770), Herder focused on language as the human trait that distinguishes humanity from all other species (Pan, 2004). But he also saw language as the creator of human differences and diversity of cultures. Herder attributed differences in languages and their corresponding differences in mentalities to differences in climate, time, and place (Miller, 1968). Kramsch (2004, p.236) proposes that Herder's theory could be a reaction to the French political and military hegemony that he came up with the equation: one language = one folk = one nation. In his "Sprachphilosophische Schriften"

(1772/1960 cited in Kramsch, 2004), he argues

If it be true that we […] learn to think through words, then language is what defines and delineates the whole of human knowledge […]. In everyday life, it is clear that to think is almost nothing else but to speak. Every nation speaks […] according to the way it thinks and thinks according to the way it speaks (pp. 99-100).

3.1.3 Wilhelm von Humboldt

Concerned with the same topic, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 - 1835) held a very similar view of the linkage between language and the Weltansicht (i.e., cultural mindset or worldview). For Humboldt, thought and language were inseparable (Miller, 1968, p.39). In an essay about the influence of the language structure on the mental development of mankind (1988/1836), he expressed his view in the following way:

[T]here resides in every language a characteristic world-view. […] By the same act whereby [man] spins language out of himself, he spins himself into it, and every language draws about the people that possesses it a circle whence it is possible to exit only by stepping over at once into the circle of another one (p. 60).

3.1.4 Franz Boas

This notion was later picked up again by the German American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858 - 1942), who probably introduced the hypothesis of linguistic relativity to America (Miller, 1968, p.11). Through his studies in anthropology, Boas (1911) gained the insight that in each language, only a part of the complete concept that we have in mind is expressed. […] [E]ach language has a peculiar tendency to select this or that aspect of the mental image which is conveyed by the expression of the thought (pp. 38-39).

3.1.5 Edward Sapir

Edward Sapir (1884 - 1939), one of Boas' students, further elaborated on Boas' theory.

[Language] powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. 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. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language. […] 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. 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. (Sapir, 1929/1958, p. 162)

3.1.6 Benjamin Lee Whorf

Sapir's elaboration was vigorously defended by his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897 - 1941) (Kramsch, 2004, p. 236), who built up his theory about linguistic relativity to a great extent on the latter's insights (Lee, 1996, pp. 87-88). Whorf's was an American businessman and linguist active during the 1920s and 1930s (Hunt & Agnoli, 1991, p. 377). In the following famous and often-quoted passage, he describes his theory in greater detail.

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. […] From this fact proceeds what I have called the "linguistic relativity principle," which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers, but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world (Whorf, 1956, pp. 212-221).

His formulation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis directly translates models from relativity physics to language (Lee, 2000):

People with different languages are like observers in different coordinate systems moving at non-uniform rates through space. A single event is apprehended differently by observers in each system. People who speak different languages are equivalent to observers who experience an event from different coordinate systems. Note that the phenomenon observed does not change. Perceptual processes do not change either. All that changes is location within one coordinate frame or another and the differing orientations entailed (pp. 48-49).

3.2 Linguistic Relativity vs. Linguistic Determinism

According to Schlesinger (1991, p. 8), Whorf's hypothesis can be summarized in the form of three theses.

Thesis 1. All thinking goes on in language. Thesis 2. Language may distort thinking.

Thesis 3. Languages differ in the thoughts they afford to us.

Whorf and Sapir's account of linguistic relativity was interpreted differently by scholars because they did not explicitly mention the extent to which they believed that thought was influenced by language. The strong version, the so-called linguistic determinism, states that language controls and determines both our thinking and perception. According to Gibbs (1994, p. 438), the hypothesis of linguistic determinism suggests that the grammatical and linguistic features of a language embody a specific world view and guide habitual thinking. This strong view has shown to be false in several experiments (Hunt & Agnolia, 1991, p. 377; Kramsch, 2004, p. 239). However, the weaker version of the claim that language influences, but does not determine, thought and culture is still popular among linguists. Kronenfeld (2000, p. 207) points out that our linguistic categories seem to bias our cognition, even if they do not determine it. When we perceive something we usually do not remember it in all its specific detail, but assimilate it to an already existing category - often a category coded in language. For our mental system (Lamb, 2000, p. 175), suppression and simplification of information are basic strategies essential and necessary for its proper functioning. Without them, it cannot operate at all. However, these strategies naturally lead to imperfect representations.


4.1 Objectivist View of Metaphor

As already pointed out in Chapter 2 "OBJECTIVISM", the mainstream view in Western philosophy emanated from a naive realism that there is an objective world, independent of human beings, to which words refer with fixed meanings. In these theories, metaphor is viewed as a matter of figurative language, not thought or understanding (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Since, in this view, figurative speech is assumed to be mutually exclusive with ordinary language use, metaphor was regarded as a tool for poets to evoke colourful images or dramatic emotions. In fact, very often, it was viewed with great suspicion because of its alleged propensity to blur the truth and encourage subjective views. It was even identified as an anomaly of language that must be avoided in order to be able to make objective statements (Schön, 1979, p. 254). Lakoff (1993) claims that, over the centuries, this objectivist tradition was taken so much for granted that most people forgot that it was just a theory.

4.2 Lakoff and Johnson's View of Metaphor

But there is also a very different tradition, albeit less dominant, connected with the notion of metaphor. It claims that metaphor is of central importance for accounting for our world perspectives and the way we think and make sense of reality (Schön, 1979, p. 254).

In this second sense, "metaphor" refers both to a certain kind of product - a perspective or frame, a way of looking at things - and to a certain kind of process - a process by which new perspectives on the world come into existence (Schön, 1979, p. 254).

Two very important proponents of this view are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. They (1980, p. 57) claim that words do not have fixed meanings and never accurately describe our physical experiences of reality free from social influences:

[E]very experience takes place within a vast background of cultural presuppositions. It can be misleading, therefore, to speak of direct physical experience as which we then 'interpret' in terms of our conceptual system. Cultural assumptions, values, and attitudes are not a conceptual overlay which we may or may not place upon experience as we choose. It would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our 'world' in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself.

For them (1980, p. 3), metaphors are not simply literary devices used in flowery language as picturesque ornament. They claim that metaphor is more than just language; it is to a great part the way we think and understand new concepts. It is pervasive in actual life and is the basis of our conceptual system. Therefore the way we think and act is to a major part metaphorical. According to Lakoff and Johnson (1980), metaphors are used to organize process, remember and express our experiences. We use them to structure our life and our experiences and to get hold of parts of our experience which would be impossible to refer to otherwise. Parts of our experience and ideas are often metaphorically understood as some kind of objects, which again can be seen as containers, substances or other special objects. Thus, metaphors are crucial for understanding and learning. Many concepts that fundamentally shape our thinking (i.e., causation, time, love, anger) are, at the very least, partly constituted by metaphor (Gibbs, 1994, p. 435). Lakoff and Johnson (1980) further propose:

Because so many of the concepts that are important to us are either abstract or not clearly delineated in our experience (the emotions, ideas, time, etc.), we need to get a grasp on them by means of other concepts that we understand in clearer terms (spatial orientations, objects, etc.). This need leads to metaphorical definition in our conceptual system. […] Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness. These endeavors of the imagination are not devoid of rationality; since they use metaphor, they employ no imaginative rationality (p. 115, 193).

Usually, people are not aware of their conceptual system; they think and act more often than not automatically. Since we use the same conceptual system for communicating that we use for thinking, language is a crucial source of information about our conceptual system1.

A good example of a conceptual metaphor would be ARGUMENT IS WAR, meaning that having an argument with somebody is usually structured in terms of war, e.g. we attack a position, we win, we gain ground, etc. (p. 8). The authors stress that we do not only speak about arguments in terms of war, but we actually think and understand it in this way. A conceptual metaphor is a partial mapping of the gestalt structure of a source concept (e.g., war) onto the gestalt structure of a target concept (e.g., argument). It goes from the source concept to the target concept, i.e. the source concept is explained in terms of the structure of the target concept (Engstrøm, 1999, p.53). When we use a metaphor to compare a target concept to a source concept, this allows us to comprehend one aspect of the target concept in terms of the source concept (e.g., understanding an aspect of arguing in terms of battle) but also necessarily hides other aspects of the target concept (e.g., the collaborative aspects in an argument) (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p.10). It is often not easy to see that there are some aspects of the target concept hidden by the metaphor, but we should be aware that every metaphor provides us only with a partial understanding of the target metaphor (p. 12). Understanding our everyday experiences as objects enables us to pick out parts of it and treat them as entities with boundaries or as uniform substances (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 25). This, in turn, enables us to refer to them, quantify them, and identify aspects and causes and even setting goals (p. 27). We are so used to this kind of thinking that such metaphors are usually taken as direct description or explanations of phenomena. The hidden aspects are often overlooked.

According to Lakoff and Johnson (1980), metaphors are grounded in the interaction of our bodies with the physical and social world, such as the fact that we perceive our bodies as objects with clear boundaries, the fact that we have a front- back and an up-down orientation. We impose the same structure on aspects of our physical experiences and conceptualize them according to this. Therefore, such metaphors are not arbitrary. Since they emerge from systematic correlates in our physical and cultural experiences, which both provide many possible bases for metaphorical concepts, metaphors can vary from culture to culture (p. 14-19). Internal systematicity, external systematicity, grounding and coherence play also an important role in the variation of metaphors between cultures (p. 107).


1 Lakoff and Johnson (1980, p. xi) mention in the acknowledgments section of "Metaphors we live by" that the notion that a language can reflect the conceptual system of its speaker derived to a great part from Sapir and Whorf, providing a linkage to the previous chapter.

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Metaphor and the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis
An Attempt to Explore and Integrate the Theory of Metaphor by Lakoff and Johnson and the Theory of Linguistic Relativity by Sapir and Whorf
University of Vienna
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metaphor, sapir-whorf-hypothesis, linguistic relativity, linguistic determinism, Lakoff and Johnson, conceptual system
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Christoph Burger (Author), 2010, Metaphor and the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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