The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Just a holding page for now – something for Crying Whorf? to link to…

Linguistic Relativity

Wilhelm von Humboldt

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 – 1835) has been credited as the originator of the  linguistic relativity hypothesis in his posthumously published The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind (1836), a study of the ancient Kawi language of Java.

Franz Boas

Franz Boas (1858 – 1942) has been described as the “Father of American Anthropology”.

Edward Sapir

Edward Sapir (1884–1939) was a student of Franz Boas.

”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 and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built upon 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 … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation”

– Edward Sapir, Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality

Sapir was also active in the international auxiliary language movement and was the first Research Director of the International Auxiliary Language Association (IALA), which presented the Interlingua conference in 1951.

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897 – 1941) published a grammar of the Hopi language, studies of Nahuatl dialects, Maya hieroglyphic writing, and the first attempt at a reconstruction of Uto-Aztecan.

”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”

– Benjamin Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf

The research does offer some support for Linguistic Relativity, popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. However, we’ve been here several times before with linguists and anthropologists prematurely announcing proof: Daniel Casasanto has termed such claims ‘Crying Whorf’.

Benjamin Lee Whorf himself had made extravagent claims about the number of Inuit words for snow which were largely based on a misunderstanding of Inuit languages. Inuit languages are largely composed of composite words assembled from complex series of suffixes: an Inuit compound ‘word’ is a rendering of what would be a sentence in other languages. Most linguists currently number Inuit words for snow at about six, depending on how you define Inuit, and how you define snow; this is considerably less than the number of English words for snow: black ice, blizzard, drift, flurry, pack, powder, sleet, slush, whiteout, etc. 

More pertinently, he made claims similar to Sinha regarding the ‘absence’ of a concept of time in the language of the Hopi Indians:

”[T]he Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions or that refer directly to what we call “time”, or to past, present, or future…”

– Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf

Ekkehart Malotki subsequently proved this claim to be incorrect: the Hopi language does, indeed, have tenses, and temporal expressions such as taavok (yesterday), qaavo (tomorrow), lootok (day after tomorrow), tooki (last night), Kyelmuya, Kyaamuya, Paamuya (names of three of the traditional lunar months), um hisat tiitiwa? (when were you born?) and ason nu noosani (I will eat later).

Sinha are aware of Whorf’s work, of course


James Cooke Brown created the  experimental language Loglan to test the Hypothesis.



  • Browne, James Cooke (1970) The Troika Incident
  • Chomsky, Noam (1957) Syntactic Structures
  • Chomsky, Noam (1972) Language and Mind
  • Deutscher, Guy (2010) Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” in The New York Times, 29th August 2010
  • Deutscher, Guy (2010) Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
  • Heinlein, Robert A. (1966) The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1836) The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind
  • Okrent, Arika (2009) In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language
  • Pinker, Steven (1994) The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind
  • Pinker, Steven (2007) The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
  • Sapir, Edward (1983) in David G. Mandelbaum (ed.) Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de (1983) Course in General Linguistics
  • Tallis, Raymond (2nd ed. 1995) Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory
  • Tallis, Raymond (2nd ed. 1998) In Defense of Realism
  • Valentin, Volosinov (1929) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language
  • Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1956) in John B. Carroll (ed.) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf

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