Language and Reality

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Posted on February 25, 2007 by Peter Turney

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is sometimes expressed as “language determines thought”. This is a fascinating concept, suggesting that speakers of another language might have a view of the world very different from our own. The artificial language Loglan (Logical Language) was originally intended to test the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The idea was that a logical language would be so different from any natural language that differences in thought should be readily detected, if the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis were true. The science fiction novel Babel-17 imagines an artificial language that can turn its speakers into traitors. In Snow Crash, language hackers can control people’s minds by speaking to them in a special language.

Since the 1950s, when the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis became well-known, the general opinion of linguists and cognitive scientists has become highly skeptical. I was surprised to find that there is recent work in linguistics and cognitive science that supports the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought (2003) is a collection of papers describing this work.

The first paper in the collection gives three more precise versions of “language determines thought”:

    1. Language as a lens: the language we acquire influences how we see the world.
    2. Language as a tool kit: the language we acquire augments our capacity for higher order representation and reasoning.
    3. Language as a category maker: the language we acquire influences where we make our category distinctions.

The papers are divided into three groups, based on which version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis they examine. It seems that there is relatively strong evidence supporting all three versions, but there is particularly strong evidence for language as a tool kit.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is alive and well. Watch out for language hackers.