Most of us naively believe that, when human beings create language they create a language which fits in with the mental concepts that they are trying to expresses. In a sense the ideas come first and the words to express them come later. To put it simply, we believe that thought is responsible for shaping language.
However, the Sapir-Whorf theory, named after the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, suggests quite the opposite and its two proponents in fact believe that the language we use ‘moulds’ the ideas or logical concepts that we have. In this case, they argue, language comes first and this language consequently determines the kinds of thoughts we can think and the concepts that we have available to us. Writing in 1929, Sapir argued that:
‘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. (Sapir 1958 , p. 69)’
This position was extended in the 1930s by his student Whorf who supported this claim with evidence from several languages and in particular from Hopi, an American-Indian language. In Hopi, there is one word (masa’ytaka) for everything that flies except birds – which would include insects, aeroplanes 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 and so on. In Aztec, a single word (with different endings) actually covers the English notions of snow, cold and ice. When more abstract notions are considered (such as time, duration and velocity) the differences become yet more complex: Hopi, for instance, lacks a concept of time seen as a dimension and there are no forms corresponding to the English tenses, but there are a series of forms making it possible to talk about duration from the speaker’s point of view. It would be very difficult, Whorf argues, for a Hopi and an English physicist to understand each other and, as a result, he declared that:
‘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 1940, pp. 213-14;)’
This theory has two important consequences. The first is called Linguistic Determinism and is the belief that our thinking is determined by language while the second is called Linguistic Relativity, which is the belief that people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world quite differently. On this basis translation between one language and another is at the very least, problematic, and sometimes impossible. This is especially problematic if we view communication even between people who are speaking the same language as a kind of translation … after all, how do I know that you are using words in the same way that I am?
Indeed, the Spanish poet Pablo Neruda noted that the best translations of his own poems were Italian (because of its similarities to Spanish), but that English and French 'do not correspond to Spanish - neither in vocalization, or in the placement, or the colour, or the weight of words.' He continued: 'It is not a question of interpretative equivalence: no, the sense can be right, but this correctness of translation, of meaning, can be the destruction of a poem. In many of the translations into French - I don't say in all of them - my poetry escapes, nothing remains; one cannot protest because it says the same thing that one has written. But it is obvious that if I had been a French poet, I would not have said what I did in that poem, because the value of the words is so different. I would have written something else' (Plimpton 1981, p. 63). From a TOK perspective it may be interesting to consider whether this problem of translation is more of an issue in the Arts than it is in the Sciences.
This hypothesis has, however, come under very persuasive attack for example from the philosopher Karl Popper who insists that, ‘even totally different languages are not untranslatable' (Popper 1970, p. 56). More recently, Stephen Pinker has labeled the theory as a ‘conventional absurdity’ in his book ‘How the Mind Works’ where he points out we are often struck by situations where we know what we want to say and can’t quite put it into words, which therefore must be a ‘thing we meant to say’ which is different to the words that we actually use.
As such, few people these days would accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its 'strong' form (that language completely determines though). However many now accept a 'weak', more moderate, or limited Whorfianism, namely that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced (rather than completely determined) by the kind of language we use, in particular our language can affect what we remember and what we find it easy to pay attention to.
Plimpton, G. (ed.) (1963-1988): Writers at Work: The 'Paris Review' Interviews, Vol. 5, 1981. London: Secker & Warburg/ Harmondsworth: Penguin (pagination differs)
Popper, K. (1970): 'Normal Science and its Dangers'. In I. Lakatos & A. Musgrave (eds.) (1970): Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. London: Cambridge University Press
Sapir, E. (1929): 'The Status of Linguistics as a Science'. In E. Sapir (1958): Culture, Language and Personality (ed. D. G. Mandelbaum). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
Whorf, B. L. (1940): 'Science and Linguistics', Technology Review 42(6): 229-31, 247-8. Also in B. L. Whorf (1956): Language, Thought and Reality (ed. J. B. Carroll). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press