Let’s explore the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis‌. We will also review the examples, evolution, and essential aspects of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis.

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis sounds like a complex concept best left for discussion among academics. People interested in language could get into a heated debate.

But “Sapir Whorf” is much more than that!

Let’s start with a simple question. Can language affect the way we think? There are plenty of theories and hypotheses for and against it.

Edward Sapir introduced the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in 1929, later advanced by Benjamin Whorf. 

Worldwide, people speak over seven thousand languages. All of them have distinct sounds, vocabulary, and structures.

And we know language is a significant part of our life. Will it affect the way we think? Let’s try to explore that‌.

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis Definition

Before diving deep for in-depth analysis, let’s first understand the definition of the hypothesis.


The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis supports linguistic relativity. That suggests the structure and vocabulary of the particular language will influence or determine the overall perception and cognition of the native speakers of that specific language.

That’s why Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is also known as the concept of linguistic relativity

What is Sapir Whorf Hypothesis?

What is Sapir Whorf Hypothesis?

The Sapir Whorf hypothesis states that how we perceive language at least strongly influences the word we speak. Proponents of this idea believe the language we speak governs our perception. And those who think languages are more or less arbitrary and all humans conceptualise things similarly.

It is a fantastic and appealing idea. It makes sense. Language limits our thoughts and perception if we have to encode them. Well, predictably, things are more complex than that.

Interesting arguments exist on both sides. Some are more compelling than others. The question is still debatable. However, the linguists and cognitive scientists most involved in this idea have not rejected it. But they are sceptical.

Summary of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

Summary of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

In summary, the hypothesis suggests the language person speaks determines or impacts their thinking or worldview. A particular language’s grammatical and lexical structure significantly affects the cognition of the people using the language.

We can see the relationship between language & culture according to the hypothesis. The culture of any demographic society is the set of beliefs and values about how they experience and perceive the world.

So, each unique culture will have different languages or varieties. As culture is specific to each group, it will develop linguistic structures and special words to express the phenomena that persist in their culture.

So, according to Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, as different cultures use different languages or have distinct linguistic categories, they will perceive the world differently. The hypothesis further claimed this phenomenon is mutually linked and impossible to separate. 

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The Origin of Hypothesis

The Origin of Hypothesis

The idea of languages influencing our thought is very ancient. It was discussed by Plato, St Augustine and the German Romantic philosophers long before Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf made a name for themselves as linguists.

Sapir became well known for his efforts towards classifying Native American languages, and his ideas started the theory later solidified by Whorf.

We also know the theory as Whorfianism. It reflects Whorf’s influence on its creation more accurately. Sapir suggests tentatively because different languages represent the world differently. It would follow that the speakers of other languages would also perceive the world differently.

Whorf, years later and continuing to study Native American languages, took the idea further. His most famous work was with the Hopi people, and several features of their language led to Whorf stating the hypothesis in its most potent form.

What is an Example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

Understanding the hypothesis and what it states is one thing, and how it works is another. Let’s see a few examples to illustrate the hypothesis you want to convey.

Example 1

Can you imagine the INUIT – indigenous people from Alaska and the Arctic got more than a hundred different words for the snow? This theory has been circulated for years, but it is an exaggeration. 

A hundred words for the snow is too high, but INUIT uses around 40-50 words to refer to snow. That depends upon the types and uses. Here are a few examples:

  • Wanik: falling snow
  • Aniu: snow used to make drinking water
  • Aputi: snow on the ground

However, other cultures don’t have even thirty words to describe snow. It is because INUIT got a more critical understanding and in-depth perception of snow and its forms.

Example 2

You must have heard the word “hygge” before, probably in the bookshops or on television. “hygge” is a Danish and Norwegian word with a complex meaning.

It refers to the feeling of contentment, well-being, cosiness, and quality of being comfortably friendly and lively.

However, people from other countries and demography might be familiar with this word. But, in English, no single word describes the same feeling.

We can suggest a few words in English like – cosy, warm or content, but they do not convey the real meaning of “hygge.”

With the word “hygge”, the Danish and Norwegian people describe their feeling more acutely and with a specific perception.

Here, you can explore everything about the Leicester Pronunciation.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Evaluation

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Evaluation

Now you understand the Sapir Whorf Theory well enough and have also gone through some examples. Let’s move to the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis evaluation.

The dichotomy exists within the theory. It means the hypothesis is divided into two parts. The Sapir Whorf is often talked about as its stronger or weaker parts. What does it mean?

Within the linguistic relativity hypothesis, there are two sub-categories: 

  •  linguistic determinism (stronger) 
  • linguistic relativism (weaker)

So, it will answer our subsequent query, what are the components of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

What are the Two Main Points of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis deals with two major components, which are:

Linguistic Determinism 


If something is reductionist, it will take a challenging or complex idea and analyse it in terms of its smallest components. It can lead to inaccurate or over-generalized conclusions. And it will not properly reflect the idea being analysed.

It is the stronger perception of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, which states that cognition is determined by the language the person speaks. The assumption made using this theory is that language provides us with the reason and the way we think.

Every country and culture has different beliefs and values because of the language they utilize. The demography that does not have the language to describe a particular phenomenon, idea, or concept is possible because of the language.

You must note that linguistic determinism is usually considered reductionist and incorrect in modern times because it does not count individual differences and subjective experiences. We will talk more about it later in our coming sections.

Linguistic Relativism 

It is the weaker and less intense version of linguistic determinism. It states that the person using the language influences their perception but does not define it.

It is also sometimes known as the Whorfian Hypothesis, which proposes that language properties affect the structure and content of thoughts and, finally, how humans perceive reality and experience. However, it does not define it.

Linguistic relativism gives an individual much more credit than linguistic determinism. As it allows for the idea, people can still understand the concept if they don’t have specific language to describe it.  

For example, let’s move to the word “hygge” again. English-speaking people can still understand or experience the concept of hygge even if they don’t have any words to describe it.

Linguistic relativism is more widely accepted than linguistic determinism.

What Experts Say in Favor of the Hypothesis

What Experts Say in Favor of the Hypothesis

The way the Hopi language grammaticalises time is another debate in linguistics. However, Whorf identified an inability to describe ‘time’ in Hopi grammar. It lived on famously in an urban legend that the Hopi ‘do not have a concept of time’, but this is not exactly what was suggested.

Whorf’s idea was that it would be illogical to think that Hopi perceives the passing of time in the same way as English speakers, without the same grammar and vocabulary to describe it. He described some aspects of their culture and behaviour to support this, although not in the sort of detail a serious linguist would demand.

More compelling evidence came from an experiment by researcher Jules Davidoff. The Himba tribe of Namibia has a language with no word for blue or a distinction between blue and green.

During the experiment, members of the Himba saw 11 green squares and one blue. Researchers asked them to pick out different ones. Most could not pick out the blue square; the rest found it more complex than anticipated.

It clearly shows language influences how we see the world, surpassing culture and affecting cognition and perception.

What Experts Say Against The Hypothesis

An entire, essential field of linguistics opposes the Sapir Whorf hypothesis – that of Universal Grammar. Noam Chomsky did not develop his ideas directly from the hypothesis, but his belief that language is a primary evolved. Individual faculty of the human brain also suggests that we all conceptualise the world under a ‘universal grammar’ and that the languages we speak. However, wildly differing structures are all essentially arbitrary and do not affect cognition – instead, it is cognition that affects language.

While still a controversial idea, Universal Grammar is a core concept in linguists. It is something all its students learn and discuss.

The most compelling argument for Universal Grammar is how infants very quickly and seemingly effortlessly learn languages that adults cannot. It suggests that language acquisition is a faculty built into the human brain and not simply a by-product of other intelligence kinds.

But there are more simple and direct reasons for being sceptical about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Whorf was very sloppy in providing evidence for his claims, and no one serious about the science of language sees his research as being thorough enough to deserve respect. And the experiment involving the Himba tribe, featured in a 2011 BBC documentary, has since become somewhat elusive – search for reliable scientific papers on the matter, and you will come up short.

Linguists in the public eye, such as John McWhorter, Steven Pinker and Geoffrey Pullum, all treat the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with a gentle sense of ridicule. Although we should not always trust the arguments from authority, these people know what they are talking about.

In fairness, the hypothesis has not been rejected in its entirety. Small, very small, perceptual differences have been recorded in reliable tests between speakers of different languages. However, the differences are negligible enough to suggest that Sapir-Whorf is not the best way to understand human perception’s tough problem. 


The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis suggests language influences cognition & thinking and can alter a person’s worldview. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, in different periods, developed it.

The hypothesis presents two underlying theories, which are – linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism. Linguistic relativism takes a practical approach and suggests that the use of language may influence thinking but does not define it.

However, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is criticized because it is reductionist, not transferrable to all languages, & cannot be proven in terms of causality.

We hope you enjoyed this write-up. Stay connected with us for more such informative and educational blogs.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you explain Sapir Whorf's theory?

We also know Sapir Whorf’s theory as the linguistic relativity hypothesis. It suggests that the use of language affects or determines the cognition, thinking, and overall worldview of the speaker.

Why is Sapir Whorf Hypothesis discredited?

The hypothesis is reductionist and lacks transferability and provable causality. That means it is not held in as high esteem as when it was first proposed.

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Anais Bartell
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