The Whorf Hypothesis

The Basic Idea

If you’ve spent any amount of time online, you might have seen an article titled along the lines of “10 words we wish we had in English” – even major outlets like the BBC1 and The Guardian2 have indulged! The format is simple. The article lists 10 words, like sobremesa (Spanish for when you stay chatting in a restaurant for too long) or kummerspeck (German for the weight gain from emotional eating), and probably a few relatable, witty remarks. The article usually ends by mourning the lack of English translation.

As behavioral scientists, we might think to ask: Are there really untranslatable words? Are there certain thoughts you can only have in certain languages?

The “Whorf Hypothesis” (also known as the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” or “Linguistic Relativism”) is an umbrella term for the claim that the language you speak determines or influences what you can think. If you speak English, there are certain thoughts you can have; if you speak Spanish or German, there are different thoughts you can have. Certain words are untranslatable because only certain languages can convey those thoughts.

Does the language we speak shape or determine what we can think? What is the relationship between language and thought?

Key Terms

The Strong Whorf Hypothesis: the claim that the language you speak determines which thoughts you can have.3 It is generally rejected by most linguists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists today.4,5, 6

The Weak Whorf Hypothesis: the claim that the language you speak influences, but does not determine, which thoughts you can have.3 This is a claim currently being studied, and many behavioral scientists believe some form of it.5,7,8

Nativism: The claim that language is largely an innate cognitive faculty, virtually identical across individuals and cultures. Versions of this claim have been defended by linguists like Noam Chomsky,9 psychologists like Steven Pinker,6 and philosophers like Jerry Fodor.10

History

While some scholars argue that the Whorf hypothesis dates back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric or to German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s writings on language, we can safely start with Wilhelm von Humboldt,11 an early 19th-century German linguist and political theorist. Before and during his fieldwork, Humboldt often wrote about the relationship between language and thought. To him, language was not merely the means through which we conveyed what was going on in our minds. Instead, the language established a worldview: languages were the means through which we understood ourselves and the world.11

Humboldt’s ideas became influential in the late-19th century through the work of the German-trained Franz Boas:11 a professor at Columbia and founder of the American Anthropological Association.12 Boas’s work in linguistic anthropology (mainly on what we now call “Inuit languages”) followed Humboldt in arguing that different languages classify how we experience the world in different, subconscious ways.11,13 Crucially, though, he did not think that language determines how we view the world. Instead, he thought that our languages’ grammatical categories reflect the ways our culture classifies the world.13

Moving on to the early 20th century, one of Boas’s own students, Edward Sapir, would also be one of the main contributors to the development of the Whorf hypothesis. (This is why it is sometimes called the “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis.) Sapir followed Boas in arguing that different languages classify how we experience the world, but he stressed that languages are complete systems, often untranslatable between each other.13 He also pushed further than Boas: he thought that language was necessary for us to fully develop the ability to think because our ability to think arises from our ability to interpret the language we speak.13 Different languages yield different interpretations, and those different interpretations place constraints on what we can think.13

This progressive strengthening of Humboldt’s original idea was finalized by one of Sapir’s students, Benjamin Lee Whorf.11 13 While not a professional linguist, Whorf was interested in documenting previous and current forms of the indigenous languages of North America, especially Nahuatl and Hopi. Whorf’s main contribution to the hypothesis was to point out that not all linguistic categories are overt; sometimes, a language encodes information implicitly. Whorf also accepted Sapir’s claim that languages place constraints on what we can think, based on the interpretations we give them. But because languages also marked things implicitly, these interpretations were widespread and pervasive — we didn’t have to actively use our language for us to be interpreting things through our language. As Whorf would put it:

“[…]users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.”15

In the 1960s and onwards, with the rise of nativism in linguistics — especially Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar — the Whorf hypothesis began to come under scrutiny. It was believed that languages were just too similar to yield the kinds of effects on the thought that Sapir and Whorf hypothesized. Further empirical work also showed that the Whorf hypothesis, in its strong form, was shown to be flawed: humans and other primates display the ability to think without language5, refuting Sapir and Whorf’s claim that we needed to interpret the language to be able to think.

However, researchers in the 1990s started studying whether language still influenced thought in any interesting ways. Among other things, behavioral scientists began looking at language’s effect on color perception, spatial cognition, and more. Many studies suggest that language does have some effect on which kinds of processing are easier for a speaker.16, 17 The research on these weaker versions of the Whorf hypothesis is still ongoing, but many behavioral scientists— even ones who reject the stronger forms— accept one version or another.14

People

 

Wilhelm von Humboldt

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 – 1835) was a philosopher and political theorist who made great contributions to philosophy, linguistics, education, anthropology, and more.18 Many theorists on language (including Boas, Sapir, Whorf, and, paradoxically enough, Chomksy) claim to have been influenced by his views.18 In particular, Humboldt is often credited with arguing that a language’s grammar is best studied by looking at the forms and procedures it uses to generate actual speech, and for arguing that thought without language is impossible.18

Franz Boas

Franz Boas (1858 – 1942) is usually credited as the founder of the American anthropological tradition, and he is the founder of the American Anthropological Association.19 His work focused on the indigenous languages in the United States, where he contributed to both our anthropological and linguistic understanding of them.19 Additionally, Boas was also among the first white social scientists who argued that racial differences were due to historical events, not genetics; and that racial categories were themselves culturally constructed.19

Edward Sapir

Edward Sapir (1884 – 1939) is often considered one of the most important figures in linguistics and anthropology in the United States.20 He was the founder of “ethnolinguistics,” which focused on the relationship between language and culture, and he is often credited as a key developer of American structural linguistics.20 His work focused on the indigenous languages of all of North America.20

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897 – 1941) was an American linguist whose work, like that of his mentor Edward Sapir, focused on the indigenous languages of North America.21 Whorf is most well-known due to his arguments in favor of linguistic relativity (which came to be known as “the Whorf hypothesis”), based on his work on Hopi and other indigenous languages.21

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky (1928 – current) is an American linguist, political theorist, and cognitive scientist.21 Chomsky’s 1959 review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior is often credited as the moment of death for behaviorism.21 Starting from the 60s and onward, Chomsky founded and contributed to the Generativist approach to linguistics, which holds that language is a separate cognitive faculty unique to humans, which children are born with and use to acquire their native language without much stimulus.21 He also argues that this linguistic faculty is universal: all humans are born with the same “Universal Grammar,” which allows them to learn language quickly and makes all human languages the same at bottom.21 This approach to language remains standard and influential to this day, especially in theoretical syntax and semantics.8,22

Consequences

If true, the strong form of the Whorf hypothesis would have massive ripple effects on our understanding of how the human mind works. If the language we spoke determined the kinds of thoughts we could have, it would be incredibly hard to find any cognitive universals. Our world speaks over 6500 languages, so the strong Whorf hypothesis predicts that we would have radically different— and untranslatable— thoughts.

Thankfully for cognitive scientists worldwide, the strong form of the Whorf hypothesis has been falsified for decades. However, we might still ask: what about the consequences of the weak form?

The research is still ongoing, but one general trend is that the language we speak makes certain thoughts slightlyeasier to access in non-trivial ways. For instance, if our language marks space using the cardinal directions (e.g., “the office is north of the coffee shop”) it would make it easier for us to think in terms of north and south.16 If, in contrast, our language marks space using speaker-focused directions (e.g., “the office is to my left”), it makes it easier for us to think in terms of left and right.16

Controversies

The Whorf hypothesis cuts at the core of what linguists, psychologists, and behavioral scientists in general want to know about language. So, it should be no surprise that it has been the topic of much (very passionate) debate in a great number of topics.

While we cannot take a stand on which side is right, we can walk through some of the research in one topic of debate: the linguistic relativity (or lack thereof) of color categories. Color categories are a natural place to look for language’s effect on a thought because there is nothing in the physics of light that requires us to draw the color boundaries at one place or another; we can split up the wavelengths in any way we would like.15 Furthermore, it’s a fact that different languages mark color boundaries differently. English marks “light blue” and “dark blue” as one color, whereas Spanish distinguishes between “celeste” and “azul.” If the strong Whorf hypothesis were true, we would expect speakers of different languages to literally perceive colors differently, in accordance with their specific language’s boundaries. If the weak Whorf hypothesis were true, we would expect to see some linguistic influence of color perception.

In the 70s, many researchers argued that universals in color categories and perception across different languages falsified both versions of the Whorf hypothesis. For example, Eleanor Hedier’s study from 1972 found that there was no difference in how speakers from languages with different color categories could memorize “focal”, or easily rememberable, colors.23 Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s work in the 60s and 70s found that, while different languages have different color categories, these color categories all follow the same patterns: they come from 11 universal categories, and they follow the same historical progression.24 These results greatly contradict any strong version of the Whorf hypothesis: it seems as though speakers of different languages perceive colors the same way, and that languages might not differ much in how they categorize color at all!

However, recent work has come to the defense of the weak form of the Whorf hypothesis. For instance, a landmark study done by researcher Johnathan Winawer and his colleagues in 2007 found that Russian speakers are significantly faster than English speakers at discriminating particular shades of blue. The Russian language, like Spanish, marks lighter shades of “blue” and darker shades of “blue” as different color categories.17 As it turns out, when tasked with discriminating between these sorts of shades of blue, Russian speakers were able to discriminate between them faster than English speakers.17 More importantly, when Winawer and his coauthors inserted a verbal interference— such as asking speakers to memorize a series of numbers and discriminate between different colors — the difference went away.17 This suggests that Russian speakers are faster at discriminating between these shades of blue because they speak Russian.17

Case Study

We all know those good decisions are often future-oriented. We save money now so we can have a better retirement later. We exercise now so we are healthier long-term. But can the language we speak influence how prone we are to make future-oriented decisions?

According to Economist M. Keith Chen’s 2013 study titled “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets,” the answer seems to be “yes”. In this study, Chen studied the future-oriented decisions of English-speakers and German-speakers. English requires speakers to mark the future tense in a way that German does not. To say something about the future, English requires us to add the word “will.”24 For example, to turn “it rains” into the future tense, we say “it will rain.” German, in contrast, does not require an additional word: present tense “Morgen regnet es” means “it rains tomorrow,” allowing German speakers to communicate about the future in the present tense.25

Chen’s hypothesis was that this difference in whether a language marks the future through its own grammatical category could lead to a difference in decision-making.25 If a language forces speakers to separate the present from the future— like English does— speakers might be influenced into thinking of the future as more distant, making them less prone to make future-oriented decisions.20 In contrast, if speakers are not forced to grammatically mark the difference between the present and the future— like German does—speakers might see the future as closer to the present, making them more prone to make future decisions.25

Surprisingly, the hypothesis was borne out: German speakers were more likely to save, exercise, etc. than English speakers.25 Even more shockingly, this effect doesn’t seem to be only correlated with a cultural or institutional difference between English-speaking countries and German-speaking countries.25 What Chen found is that language and culture can influence decision-making independently: people can be influenced into more future-oriented decisions either by the society they live in or by the language they speak.25

Related TDL Content

Zooming Out: The Impact of Distance on our Decisions

In our case study, we saw how placing distance between future events and present events— by speaking a language that forces us to distinguish them grammatically—is associated with worse long-term decision making. However, temporal distance is not alone in causing behavioral effects. In this piece, Kaylee Somerville explores how other kinds of distance influence the decisions we make.

Drone Policy (2/3): Understanding The Issues

As we discussed earlier, most behavioral scientists are willing to admit that language has an influence on how we think. In this piece by Jared Celniker, we see one example of that influence in drone policy. He explores how, oftentimes, delicate and inoffensive language influences us into thinking that a drone strike was justified.

Sources

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