Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is about the connection between language and thought.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis takes two forms: that language determines thought or that language influences thought. The former is a much stronger view because it states that one is incapable of understanding a concept for which the language has no name (it also implies that there is no thought without language). There is no empirical evidence supporting the strong version and considerable evidence that thought can proceed without benefit of language. However, the weak version plausibly suggests that different languages can “carve up” the world into different ways — or, put another way, that conceptual thinking can be shaped and constrained by available linguistic categories. As Whorf put it, “We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, ascribe significance as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language”.

This is why controlling language is one of the first things tyrants and those who would control and manipulate other do. Co-opt and corrupt the language, and you can control the thoughts of the people more easily.

2 thoughts on “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

  1. There was an interesting column in the WSJ a few weeks ago, in a regular weekly feature about religion. (“The Faith of an Autistic Man”, by Jory Fleming, 6/17/2021.) The author describes himself as autistic. One item that caught my attention is that he describes his thought processes as not being in English, and I think not in any language, and that in learning to communicate he had to become comfortable with translating those thoughts into English before he could have a conversation.

    He also described how that way of thought tied into him being a Christian; I found that interesting to read but don’t remember the details.

    Meanwhile, on the weak hypothesis, that makes perfect sense and I think is pretty easy to confirm. The different languages I know make different distinctions, and those in turn can translate into different world views. For example, Japanese changes word forms to reflect the social relationship (ranks) between speaker and audience. Japanese has a different word for “there by the listener” vs. “there away from both of us”. (English and Dutch do too, but those are somewhere between old fashioned and obsolete — “yonder” is that third case in English.) English has “above” and “over” while Dutch makes do with one word; English has “tall” and “long” where again Dutch has just one — which once got me intro trouble in college 🙂

  2. I’m pretty sure this was demonstrated at the Tower of Babel? And without thought, one would have no reason for language?

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