Sapir-Worf Hypothesis: Linguistic Determinism and Linguistic Relativity
The romantic idealism of the late eighteenth century, as encountered in the views of Johann Herder (1744-1803) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (I 762-1835), placed great value on the diversity of the world’s languages and cultures. The tradition was taken up by the American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and his pupil Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), and resulted in a view about the relation between language and thought which was widely influential in the middle decades of this century. The “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” as it came to be called, combines two principles. The first is known as linguistic determinism: it states that language determines the way we think. The second follows from this, and is known as linguistic relativity: it states that the distinctions encoded in one language are not found in any other language. In a much- quoted paragraph, Whorf propounds the view as follows:
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. 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 kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds--and this means largely by the linguistic systems in 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. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.
Whorf illustrated his view by taking examples from several languages, and in particular from Hopi, an Amerindian language. In Hopi, there is one word (masa’ytaka) for everything that flies except birds-- which would include insects, airplanes, and pilots. This seems alien to someone used to thinking in English, but, Whorf argues, it is no stranger than English-speakers having one word for many kinds of snow, in contrast to Eskimo, where there are different words for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow (cf. English slush), and so on. In Aztec, a single word (with different endings) covers an even greater range of English notions--snow, cold, and ice. When more abstract notions are considered (such as time, duration, velocity), the differences...