It sounds like the sort of daunting concept best left to discussion between academics. In fact the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in its simplest form, is also just the sort of thing people interested in language could get into a heated discussion about at the pub.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the way we perceive the world is at least strongly influenced by the language we happen to speak. There are proponents of this idea who believe our perception is governed entirely by the language we speak, and those who believe languages are more or less arbitrary, and all humans conceptualise things in the same way.
It’s definitely a cool and appealing idea. It seems to make sense – surely our thoughts and perception are limited by the language we have to encode them? Well, predictably, things aren’t as simple as that. There are interesting arguments on both sides, some more compelling than others, and the question is still hotly contested. However, it should be said that the community of linguists and cognitive scientists most involved in this idea have… not rejected it, exactly. But they’re definitely sceptical.
The hypothesis’ origins
The idea that languages influences the nature of our thought is an ancient one, discussed by Plato, St Augustine and the German Romantic philosophers a long time 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 it was his ideas that started the theory later solidified by Whorf (the theory is also often known as Whorfianism, which perhaps reflects more accurately Whorf’s influence on its creation). Sapir suggested, tentatively, that because different languages represent the world differently, it would follow that the speakers of different languages would also perceive the world differently.
Whorf, years later and continuing to study Native American languages, took the idea further. Perhaps his most famous work was with the Hopi people, and it was several features of their language that lead to Whorf stating the hypothesis in its strongest form.
The way the Hopi language grammaticalises time is another debate in linguistics. However, at the time Whorf identified in Hopi grammar a lack of ability to describe what we would call ‘time’. This lived on famously in an urban legend, that the Hopi ‘do not have a concept of time’, but importantly this is not exactly what was suggested. Whorf’s idea was that it would be illogical to think that Hopi perceive 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 in the form of an experiment conducted by researcher Jules Davidoff. The Himba tribe of Namibia have a language with no word for blue, or a distinction between blue and green. During the experiment members of the Himba were shown 11 green squares and one blue, and asked to pick out the one that was different. Most could not pick out the blue square, and those that could found it much more difficult than anticipated. This seemed to be a clear indication of language influencing the way we see the world, in a way surpassing culture and actually effecting cognition and perception.
An entire, essential field of linguistics stands in opposition to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that of Universal Grammar. Noam Chomsky didn’t come up with his ideas as a direct result of the hypothesis, but his belief that language is a primary, evolved and unique faculty of the human brain also suggests that we all conceptualise the world under a ‘universal grammar’, and that the languages we end up speaking, although of wildly differing structures, are all essentially arbitrary, and do not effect cognition – rather it’s cognition that effects language. While still a controversial idea Universal Grammar is a core concept in linguists and something learned and discussed by all of its students.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for Universal Grammar is the way in which infants very quickly and seemingly effortlessly learn languages, in a way that adults manifestly cannot. This suggests that language acquisition is a faculty built into the human brain, and not simply a by-product of other kinds of intelligence.
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, while featured in a 2011 BBC documentary, has since become rather elusive – search for reliable scientific papers on the matter and you’ll 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, and although arguments from authority shouldn’t always be trusted, it’s fair to say these people know what they’re talking about.
In fairness, the hypothesis hasn’t 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 small enough to suggest the Sapir-Whorf isn’t a good way of understanding the extremely hard problem of human perception. But it’s definitely a good idea to take to the pub.
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