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The language theory of Sapir-Whorf

The language theory of Sapir-Whorf

May 6, 2024

Traditionally, the human being has understood language as a means of communication through which it is possible to establish a link with the world and allows us to express what we think or feel.

This conception sees language as a means of expressing what is already inside. But nevertheless, for the Sapir-Whorf language theory, this has a much greater importance , having a much more important role when it comes to organizing, thinking or even perceiving the world.

And is that while the relationship between thought and language has been a field of study that has received much interest from psychologists and linguists, few theories have gone so far when relating these two worlds.

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When the language configures the thought

According to Sapir-Whorf's theory of language, human communication at the verbal level, the use of language in human beings, It is not limited to express our mental contents . For this theory, language plays a very important role in shaping our way of thinking and even our perception of reality, determining or influencing our vision of the world.

In this way, the grammatical categories in which language classifies the world that surrounds us makes us adhere to a concrete way of thinking, reasoning and perceiving, being this linked to the culture and communicative context in which we are immersed as long childhood In other words, the structure of our language It makes us tend to use concrete interpretive structures and strategies.

Likewise, Sapir-Whorf's theory of language establishes that each language has its own terms and conceptualizations that can not be explained in other languages. This theory emphasizes the role of the cultural context when it comes to offering a framework in which to elaborate our perceptions, so that we are capable of observe the world within socially imposed margins .

Some examples

For example, the Eskimo people are accustomed to living in cold environments with lots of snow and ice, possessing in their language the ability to discriminate between different types of snow. In comparison with other peoples, this helps them to be much more aware of the nature and context in which they live, being able to perceive nuances of reality that a Westerner escapes.

Another example can be seen in some tribes in whose language there are no references to time. These individuals have severe difficulties in conceptualizing time units . Other peoples do not have words to express certain colors, such as orange.

A final, much more recent example can be given with the term umami, Japanese concept that refers to a flavor derived from the concentration of glutamate and that for other languages ​​does not have a specific translation, being difficult to describe for a Western person.

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Two versions of the Sapir-Whorf theory

With the passing of time and the criticisms and demonstrations that seemed to indicate that the effect of language on thought is not as modulating of perception as initially stipulated theory, the language theory of Sapir-Whorf has undergone some subsequent modifications . That is why we can talk about two versions of this theory.

1. Strong hypothesis: linguistic determinism

The initial vision of Sapir-Whorf's theory of language had a very deterministic and radical vision regarding the role of language. For the strong Whorfian hypothesis, language completely determines our judgment , capacity of thought and perception, giving them form and being able to consider even that thought and language are in essence the same.

Under this premise, a person whose language does not contemplate a certain concept will not be able to understand it or distinguish it. As an example, a town that has no word for the color orange will not be able to distinguish one stimulus from another whose only difference is color. In the case of those who do not include temporal notions in their speech, they will not be able to distinguish between what happened a month ago and what happened twenty years ago, or between present, past or future.


Several subsequent studies have shown that the language theory of Sapir-Whorf is not correct, at least in its deterministic conception , performing experiments and investigations that reflect their falsity at least partially.

The ignorance of a concept does not imply that it can not be created within a specific language, something that under the premise of the strong hypothesis would not be possible.Although it is possible that a concept does not have a specific correlation in another language, it is possible to generate alternatives.

Following with the examples of previous points, if the strong hypothesis were correct the towns that do not have a word to define a color they would not be able to distinguish between two equal stimuli except in that aspect , since they could not perceive the differences. However, experimental studies have shown that they are fully capable of distinguishing these stimuli from others of different color.

Similarly, we may not have a translation for the term umami, but if we are able to detect that it is a flavor that leaves a velvety sensation in the mouth, leaving a prolonged and subtle aftertaste.

Likewise, other linguistic theories, such as that of Chomsky, have studied and indicated that although language is acquired through a long learning process, there are partially innate mechanisms that before language emerges as such allows to observe communicative aspects and even the existence of concepts in babies, being common to most known peoples.

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2. Weak hypothesis: linguistic relativism

The initial deterministic hypothesis was, over time, modified by the evidence that the examples used to defend it were not completely valid or demonstrated a total determination of thought by language.

However, the language theory of Sapir-Whorf has been developed in a second version, according to which, although the language does not determine per se thought and perception, but yes is an element that helps to shape and influence in the type of content that receives the most attention.

For example, it is proposed that the characteristics of the spoken language may influence the way in which certain concepts are conceived or in the attention that receive certain nuances of the concept to the detriment of others.


This second version has found some empirical demonstration, since it reflects that the fact that a person has difficulty conceptualizing a certain aspect of reality due to the fact that their language does not contemplate it does not focus on these aspects.

For example, while a Spanish speaker tends to pay close attention to verbal tense, others such as Turkish tend to focus on who performs the action, or English in spatial position. In this way, each language favors highlighting specific aspects , which when acting in the real world can cause slightly different reactions and responses. For example, it will be easier for the Spanish speaker to remember when something has happened than where, yes, you are asked to remember it.

It can also be observed when classifying objects. While some people will use the form to catalog objects, others will tend to associate things with their material or color.

The fact that there is no specific concept in language means that although we are able to perceive it, we tend not to pay attention to it. If for us and our culture is not important if what happened happened a day ago or a month ago, if you ask us directly for when it happened it will be difficult to give an answer as it is something we have never thought about. Or if they present something with a strange characteristic, such as a color we have never seen before, it may be perceived but it will not be decisive when making distinctions unless the coloring is an important element in our thinking.

Bibliographic references:

  • Parra, M. (s.f.). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Department of Linguistics, National University of Colombia.
  • Sapir, E. (1931). Conceptual categories in primitive languages. Science.
  • Schaff, A. (1967). Language and Knowledge Editorial Grijalbo: Mexico.
  • Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought and Reality. The M.I.T. Press, Massachussetts.

Does language shape how we think? Linguistic relativity & linguistic determinism -- Linguistics 101 (May 2024).

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