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Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Examples, Definition, Criticisms

sapir-whorf hypothesis examples and definition

Developed in 1929 by Edward Sapir, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (also known as linguistic relativity ) states that a person’s perception of the world around them and how they experience the world is both determined and influenced by the language that they speak.

The theory proposes that differences in grammatical and verbal structures, and the nuanced distinctions in the meanings that are assigned to words, create a unique reality for the speaker. We also call this idea the linguistic determinism theory .

Spair-Whorf Hypothesis Definition and Overview

Cibelli et al. (2016) reiterate the tenets of the hypothesis by stating:

“…our thoughts are shaped by our native language, and that speakers of different languages therefore think differently”(para. 1).

Kay & Kempton (1984) explain it a bit more succinctly. They explain that the hypothesis itself is based on the:

“…evolutionary view prevalent in 19 th century anthropology based in both linguistic relativity and determinism” (pp. 66, 79).

Linguist Edward Sapir, an American linguist who was interested in anthropology , studied at Yale University with Benjamin Whorf in the 1920’s.

Sapir & Whorf began to consider lexical and grammatical patterns and how these factored into the construction of different culture’s views of the world around them.

For example, they compared how thoughts and behavior differed between English speakers and Hopi language speakers in regard to the concept of time, arguing that in the Hopi language, the absence of the future tense has significant relevance (Kay & Kempton, 1984, p. 78-79).

Whorf (2021), in his own words, asserts:

“Every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness” (p. 252).

10 Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Examples

  • Constructions of food in language: A language may ascribe many words to explain the same concept, item, or food type. This shows that they perceive it as extremely important in their society, in comparison to a culture whose language only has one word for that same concept, item, or food.
  • Descriptions of color in language: Different cultures may visually perceive colors in different ways according to how the colors are described by the words in their language.
  • Constructions of gender in language: Many languages are “gendered”, creating word associations that pertain to the roles of men or women in society.
  • Perceptions of time in language: Depending upon how the tenses are structured in a language, it may dictate how the people that speak that language perceive the concept of time.
  • Categorization in language: The ways concepts and items in a given culture are categorized (and what words are assigned to them) can affect the speaker’s perception of the world around them.
  • Politeness is encoded in language: Levels of politeness in a language and the pronoun combinations to express these levels differ between languages. How languages express politeness with words can dictate how they perceive the world around them.
  • Indigenous words for snow: A popular example used to justify this hypothesis is the Inuit people, who have a multitude of ways to express the word snow. If you follow the reasoning of Sapir, it would suggest that the Inuits have a profoundly deeper understanding of snow than other cultures.
  • Use of idioms in language: An expression or well-known saying in one culture has an acute meaning implicitly understood by those that speak the particular language but is not understandable when expressed in another language.
  • Values are engrained in language: Each country and culture have beliefs and values as a direct result of the language it uses. 
  • Slang in language: The slang used by younger people evolves from generation to generation in all languages. Generational slang carries with it perceptions and ideas about the world that members of that generation share.

See Other Hypothesis Examples Here

Two Ways Language Shapes Perception

1. perception of categories and categorization.

How concepts and items in a culture are categorized (and what words are assigned to them) can affect the speaker’s perception of the world around them.

Although the examples of this phenomenon are too numerous to cite, a clear example is the extremely contextual, nuanced, and hyper-categorized Japanese language.

In the English language, the concept of “you” and “I” is narrowed to these two forms. However, Japanese has numerous ways to express you and I, each having various levels of politeness and appropriateness in relation to age, gender, and stature in society.

While in common conversation, the pronoun is often left out of the conversation – reliant on context, misuse or omission of the proper pronoun can be perceived as rude or ill-mannered.

In other ways, the complexity of the categorical lexicons can often leave English speakers puzzled. This could come in the form of classifications of different shaped bowls and plates that serve different functions; it could be traces of the ancient Japanese calendar from the 7 th Century, that possessed 72 micro-seasons during a year, or any number of sub-divided word listings that may be considered as one blanket term in another language.

Masuda et al. (2017) gives a clear example:

“ People conceptualize objects along the lines drawn between existing categories in their native language. That is, if two concepts fall into the same linguistic category, the perception of similarity between these objects would be stronger than if the two concepts fall into different linguistic categories.”

They then go on to give the example of how Japanese vs English speakers might categorize an everyday object – the bell:

“For example, in Japanese, the kind of bell found in a bell tower generally corresponds to the word kane—a large bell—which is categorically different from a small bell, suzu. However, in English, these two objects are considered to belong within the same linguistic category, “bell.” Therefore, we might expect English speakers to perceive these two objects as being more similar than would Japanese speakers (para 5).

2. Perception of the Concept of Time

According to a way the tenses are structured in a language, it may dictate how the people that speak that language perceive the concept of time

One of Sapir’s most famous applications of his theory is to the language of the Arizona Native American Hopi tribe.

He claimed, although refuted vehemently by linguistic scholars since, that they have no general notion of time – that they cannot decipher between the past, present, or future because of the grammatical structures that are used within their language.

As Engle (2016) asserts, Sapir believed that the Hopi language “encodes on ordinal value, rather than a passage of time”.

He concluded that, “a day followed by a night is not so much a new day, but a return to daylight” (p. 96).

However, it is not only Hopi culture that has different perception of time imbedded in the language; Thai culture has a non-linear concept of time, and the Malagasy people of Madagascar believe that time in motion around human beings, not that human beings are passing through time (Engle, 2016, p. 99).

Criticism of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

1. language as context-dependent.

Iwamoto (2005) expresses that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis fails to recognize that language is used within context. Its purely decontextualized textual analysis of language is too one-dimensional and doesn’t consider how we actually use language:

“Whorf’s “neat and simplistic” linguistic relativism presupposes the idea that an entire language or entire societies or cultures are categorizable or typable in a straightforward, discrete, and total manner, ignoring other variables such as contextual and semantic factors .” (Iwamoto, 2005, p. 95)

2. Not universally applicable

Another criticism of the hypothesis is that Sapir & Whorf’s hypothesis cannot be transferred or applied to all languages.

It is difficult to cite empirical studies that confirm that other cultures do not also have similarities in the way concepts are perceived through their language – even if they don’t possess a similar word/expression for a particular concept that is expressed.

3. thoughts can be independent of language

Stephen Pinker, one of Sapir & Whorf’s most emphatic critics, would argue that language is not of our thoughts, and is not a cultural invention that creates perceptions; it is in his opinion, a part of human biology (Meier & Pinker, 1995, pp. 611-612).

He suggests that the acquisition and development of sign language show that languages are instinctual, therefore biological; he even goes so far as to say that “all speech is an illusion”(p. 613).

Cibelli, E., Xu, Y., Austerweil, J. L., Griffiths, T. L., & Regier, T. (2016). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Probabilistic Inference: Evidence from the Domain of Color.  PLOS ONE ,  11 (7), e0158725.  https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158725

Engle, J. S. (2016). Of Hopis and Heptapods: The Return of Sapir-Whorf.  ETC.: A Review of General Semantics ,  73 (1), 95.  https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-544562276/of-hopis-and-heptapods-the-return-of-sapir-whorf

Iwamoto, N. (2005). The Role of Language in Advancing Nationalism.  Bulletin of the Institute of Humanities ,  38 , 91–113.

Meier, R. P., & Pinker, S. (1995). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.  Language ,  71 (3), 610.  https://doi.org/10.2307/416234

Masuda, T., Ishii, K., Miwa, K., Rashid, M., Lee, H., & Mahdi, R. (2017). One Label or Two? Linguistic Influences on the Similarity Judgment of Objects between English and Japanese Speakers. Frontiers in Psychology , 8 . https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01637

Kay, P., & Kempton, W. (1984). What Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?  American Anthropologist ,  86 (1), 65–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/679389

Whorf, B. L. (2021).  Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf . Hassell Street Press.

Gregory

Gregory Paul C. (MA)

Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.

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Chris

Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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  1. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Examples, Definition, Criticisms

    10 Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Examples. Constructions of food in language: A language may ascribe many words to explain the same concept, item, or food type. This shows that they perceive it as extremely important in their society, in comparison to a culture whose language only has one word for that same concept, item, or food.