Does it is sometimes feel difficult – impossible – to learn a new language? Perhaps grammar rules seem illogical, or vocabulary seems to be a random menagerie of sounds. Even after you learn a bit of the language, perhaps you find that you're still "speaking" English, you just happen to be using Spanish or Russian words.

Perhaps, as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis posits, speakers of those languages are actually seeing a different world than the one you do.

What's in a hypothesis?

First things first, it's important to understand that this is a hypothesis, not a theory. While synonyms in casual speech, there is a world of difference between these two terms in their academic usage.

According to Merriam-Webster:

  • Hypothesis: An assumption made before any research has been completed
  • Theory: A principle that has been formed as an attempt to explain things that have already been substantiated by data

In other words, a hypothesis is a guess made before you have data, while a theory is an explanation given while looking at the data.

This is an important distinction, so keep it in mind while reading.

History and Overview

To start off with an interesting bit of trivia, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf never actually worked together. Sapir was a mentor of Whorf's, and though their work overlapped, they were not academic partners.  

Furthermore, they never presented their ideas in the form of a hypothesis. The term Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis seems to have been first used by Harry Hoijer, another of Sapir's students.

So what did Sapir and Whorf have to say?

Edward Sapir

In 1915, American anthropologist Edward Sapir published an article entitled Abnormal Types of Speech in Nootka. In it, he discusses instances in which speakers of the Nootka language intentionally use "abnormal" language, by which he means language that differs from their normal speech habits. For example:

  • Special suffixes are added to words for a wide variety of purposes – from talking to abnormally small people to left-handed people, when talking to someone the speaker feels affection for, and even when talking to greedy or cowardly people
  • Sounds are altered when talking about certain things – for example, vowels and continuants are nasalized when speaking about elk

In this initial paper, the furthest Sapir goes is to suggest that these linguistic tendencies might become intertwined with psychological ones. If Nootka speakers tend to stutter when mocking others, for example, the act of stuttering would eventually become imbued with a negative quality – a concrete psychological association brought about by nothing more than a happenstance linguistic tendency.  

While perhaps novel for the time, this probably doesn't sound all that groundbreaking today. There are several ways of creating associative meaning: Our experiences color our world. 2007 is an excellent year for Red Sox fans, who won the World Series that year, and an especially disappointing one for Rockies fans. Every single word and idea hits each individual just a bit differently. But how differently? And what comes as a result of that difference, if it's big enough?

* * *

In 1924, Sapir published an article entitled The Grammarian and His Language, in which a different observation about Nootka grammar lead him to what I think is a significantly more interesting question:

Because of how Nootka grammar works, where we would say the stone falls, they would say something more like it stones down. As Sapir himself said, "while Nootka has no difficulty whatever in describing the fall of a stone, it has no verb that truly corresponds to our [word for] fall."

Does this mean that Nooka speakers and speakers of other languages see the relationship between the stone and its falling differently? They're taking a different approach to describe the same thing, after all, so perhaps they end up conceptualizing the falling stone differently, too?

Now take this question one step further.

We are, after all, not merely talking about a stone falling. That's just the example that Sapir happened to make. Many different examples could be made – so many that you can't think a thought without, in some large or small way, being "fettered" by your language.

"The upshot of it all", says Sapir, "would be to make very real to us a kind of relativity that is generally hidden from us by our naïve acceptance of fixed habits of speech as guides to an objective understanding of the nature of experience."

Now, in the section above, we talked about the importance of associations.

That in mind, consider this: Einstein's theory of relativity had only recently been published in 1905. When Sapir referred to language as being relative in 1924, this backdrop is what was coloring his sense of the word relativity. (As an aside, that link about relativity is super cool – check it out, even if you're not normally interested in science.)

Can something invisible and intangible like language affect, or even control, how you see the world?

Benjamin Lee Whorf

In 1950, Benjamin Lee Whorf published An American Indian Model of the Universe. It summed up his exploration of the language, and in it, he focuses on what is something of a mind-bending assertion: the Hopi language does not have words for past, present or future and it does not describe the world in these terms.

Whereas English sees time as being something that "flows," the Hopi instead see the past, present and future as existing simultaneously. Everything is in the process of becoming. There is no sense of movement, in the sense of something that has come to be or is going to be. Rather, the future simply manifests into being at a certain point in time, when it is ready.  

As such, according to Whorf, Hopi has only three tenses:

  • One for present and past events (a report of an event)
  • One for future events (an expectation of an event)
  • One for making generalizations about events

Putting those blocks together brings us to another curious conclusion: speakers of Hopi do not dice up their lives into little countable segments as we do. Years are not something that can be accumulated and days are not things that go by.

Whorf concludes his paper by stating that "the Hopi language gets along perfectly without tenses for its verbs."

Indeed, the Hopi navigate their lives perfectly fine without these tenses. They simply conceptualize the world in their own way, and while it may be different than our conceptualization of the world (which is not necessarily the right one!), they are not hindered in the slightest by their lack of time words.

A later linguist named Ekkehart Malotki would offer hundreds of pages worth of examples showing that the Hopi do have means to navigate time in their language, and ultimately that Whorf may not have understood the language as well as he thought he did. Nevertheless, Malotki also yields that English and Hopi do conceptualize time differently: whereas English sees the world in terms of past and non-past, Hopi sees the world in terms of future and non-future.

But even if we accept that different languages conceptualize the world differently, in a bigger or smaller way, what does that actually mean in practical terms?

What is the outcome of having a distinct "Hopi" sense of time and a distinct "English" sense of time?

Two Flavors of Sapir-Whof

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in two main flavors:

  • The strong version, also known as linguistic determinism, says that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit cognitive capabilities.
  • The weak version, or linguistic relativity, says that language influences thought. While your language doesn't prevent you from having certain thoughts, it may make it more convenient to have some thoughts over others.

Generally speaking, modern linguistics have discarded the strong version of the theory. It seems relatively safe to say that language can influence thought, but there is not consensus on the extent to which it does, or what the ultimate result of that influence is.

If you're interested in this topic, check out The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (article), The Language Hoax (book) or Through the Language Glass (book) to see some of the hard details get ironed out.

Sapir-Whorf in Action

Perhaps it would be easier to say that your language determines what information about the world you have to pay attention to.

For example, consider the German words an and auf. Both translate to the English word on, but auf is used when an object is on a horizontal surface (like a table) and an is used when an object is on a vertical surface (like a wall).

I like this example because, unlike something like the conceptualization of time, it's relatively concrete and tangible. I think that helps to make two important points more obvious:

  1. It's not that English speakers are oblivious to this distinction between horizontal and vertical surfaces. We can make that differentiation, too, if we need to. At most, perhaps you could say we simply aren't used to making that distinction because it isn't important to do so in English.
  2. It's not necessarily the case that German speakers conceptualize the world differently than English speakers, but in this specific situation, they do have to pay attention to whether a surface is horizontal or vertical, whereas English speakers get to ignore that information because the preposition on encompasses both scenarios. It's an important distinction in German, but it isn't in English.

Not nearly as awesome or romantic, though, is it?

In a similar vein, here are a few other examples that commonly get brought up when discussing linguistic relativity:

  • Whereas English speakers conceptualize time horizontally (last time vs next time), Mandarin speakers conceptualize time vertically. 上次 (shang4ci4) translates to "last time" and 下次 (xia4ci4) translates to "next time," but literally speaking, 上 means "up" and 下 means "down."
  • Whereas English counts things by simply putting a number and noun together (one dog or three pencils), Japanese requires people to classify all objects into certain groups. One dog would be 犬一匹(inu-ippiki), meaning dog - one - counter for small animals, whereas three pencils would be 鉛筆三本 (empitsu-sampon), meaning pencil - three - counter for long and thin objects. Note that we sometimes do this in English, too: a loaf of bread or herd of cows.
  • Some languages have specific vocabulary words that others lack. For example, the Inuit language has several words for snow – [apun] means "snow that is on the ground." As English lacks this specific word, it has to use a circumlocution to convey the same meaning.
  • Russian does not have a single "umbrella" word for the color blue. Instead, the word голубой (goluboy) refers to lighter shades of blue and синий (siniy) refers to darker shades of blue. Russian speakers see these as being entirely different colors, like blue and green, rather than two "flavors" of blue.
  • Some languages (particularly in Australia) do not have "relative" direction words like left or behind. Instead, they utilize only "absolute" directions like north or seaward. As such, rather than saying that someone lives behind the school, you'd have to describe the location of their house in terms of cardinal directions.

What does that mean for language learners?

From a certain point of view, language is merely a tool for forming and expressing information. Depending on how much you want to buy into the hypothesis, then, it makes quite an interesting demand of learners: to learn French, for example, you need to become a little French yourself.

  • On some level, this has to do with arbitrary collocations, words that just happen to commonly appear together. In English we say that it's raining heavily, but in Mandarin they'd instead say that it's raining "bigly" – 雨下得很大 (yv3 xia4 de5 hen3 da4).
  • On another level, it has to do with arbitrary set-phrases. In English, we need to go to the bathroom, but in Japanese they want to go to the bathroom (トイレ行きたい!- toire ikitai). There isn't a particular reason to use one word over the other, but speakers of different languages tend to habitually use certain words and phrases over others.
  • Words also have different associative meanings in different languages. In English, blue is associated with feelings of sadness, whereas in Russian, siniy (dark blue) is associated with homosexuality.
  • Different languages use different grammatical structures to express the same idea. In English we'd say I broke my arm, but Spanish instead uses a reflexive verb construction that translates to something like the arm broke on/at me (se me ha quebrado el brazo.)

Conclusion

If you memorize enough words and study a bit of grammar, before long you'll be able to translate your English thoughts into French and say I'm so hungry that I could eat a horse!  – but in this case, you're really just speaking English while using French words. Not natural French, just translated English.

If you connect with French culture, whether via a friend or a good book, chances are you'll eventually discover that French people think about elephants instead of horses when they're hungry: J’ai tellement faim que je pourrais manger un éléphant.

For now, we'll leave it up to you whether those little epiphanies are simply you learning to speak a new language... or perhaps if they're you discovering see a new world.

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  2. How to Improve Your Pronunciation in Any Language
  3. 10 Ways to Learn a Language, According to Research
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