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The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Linguistic Relativity

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf HypothesisHow do we know how to think about something? Our primary mode of thinking is through language. So, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that the language you use conditions the way you think.

And if this is true, then the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has a profound implication for managers. Because many of us speak fluent ‘Management Speak’!

So, what is this Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – also known as Linguistic Relativism or Linguistic Relativity? And is there any truth to it?


What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

The language we speak is the context for all our conversation and thinking. As a result, it affects all of our experiences and how we interpret them. So, the way we perceive our world is conditioned by the language we speak.

That is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Sapir and Whorf

This is not a biography of the names behind the hypothesis, but I expect you’ll want to know that:

  • Edward Sapir was an American anthropologist-linguist, active from the first decade of the Twentieth Century.
  • Benjamin Whorf was an American chemical engineer by profession and linguist in his spare time, studying under Sapir from the mid-1920s. 

Both died young and within a couple of years of each other: Sapir at 55 and Whorf at 44.

Language Conditions Thought

This is about the words (vocabulary) available to us and the structure of our language. Typical examples include the way it handles time or colour, word order, cases, and genders. Even more subtle is the metaphorical choices users make, when they coin new words and phrases to represent novel experiences and the new items that they encounter.  

Those metaphorical constructions seem logical and ‘obvious’ to the language users. But a literal translation renders them odd – maybe bizarre – to users of another language. An example Whorf gave serves as a clear illustration.

In English, when we want to prepare a rifle, we might use the phrase: ‘I clean the gun with a ramrod’. Hopi Native Americans created the neologism: ‘Nipekwakaha’. This literally means ‘I create a dry space in the interior by moving a tool’. In English, we focus on the ‘things’ the gun and the ramrod. In Hopi, speakers focus on the condition (interior) and action (moving the tool).

…or Does it?

But the question is: ‘how much difference does this really make?’ And that’s an argument that has been raging in linguistics circles for nearly a hundred years. We’ll come back to that at the end.

But first, let’s answer the question…

Why Does the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Matter?

Sapir-Whorf matters because, in management and professional life, we are creating language all of the time. We think of the words we invent and the metaphors we adopt as descriptive and neutral. They are not. Our choices have an impact on ourselves and the people we share them with.

In 2011, Paul Thibodeau carried out a fascinating experiment. Thibodeau is a cognitive psychologist and he and his team created a documentary about crime. In two different versions, they only made one change: In one, they described crime as a ‘beast’: in the other, as a ‘disease’. Questioned after viewing one or the other version at random:

  • people who viewed the version with the ‘beast’ metaphor were more likely to recommend strict punishment
  • those who saw the version with the ‘disease’ metaphor preferred ‘cures’ like social reforms, better education, or improved healthcare

Language matters.

How Much Credibility does the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis have?

There is no easy answer to this. Linguists are split and the mood has shifted over the last hundred years. But if there is a consensus, it is around the two versions of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis:

  • Extreme interpretation
    Human thoughts and actions are largely constrained by our language
    This is also known as ‘linguistic relativism’ or ‘linguistic relativity’ (the term that Whorf favoured)
  • Weaker interpretation
    Our language only shapes our thinking and behavior to a degree – possibly a small one. Empirical evidence is mixed.
    This is also known as ‘linguistic determinism’

This is a topic that interests many linguists. Yet there is very little high-quality empirical research.

Currently, most linguists take a balanced view of linguistic relativity. They assess that language does influence certain kinds of mental processes. And in some cases, it does so in non-trivial ways. But there are other mental processes where apparent differences correlate better with other factors than the structure and vocabulary of the language.

Heidegger took a Different View

Martin Heidegger was a philosopher: not a linguist nor scientist. But his later interest in language was profound. He argued that we create and innovate with language to reflect and frame our environment and our social experiences. In this way, he turns the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis on its head. Rather than language conditioning our choices, our social choices lead to the language we create.

What is Your experience of Linguistic Relativity?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

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