Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Are Language and Culture Tightly Linked?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Benjamin Lee Whorf formulated the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the structure of our grammar channels the way we think. People throughout the years have tried to support Whorf scientifically on this. Have they succeeded?

Speech bubbles hanging from threads with 'Hello' in different languages written on them.
Language interests people based on how it is connected to the culture. (Image: Ollie The Designer/Shutterstock)

Whorf’s Hypothesis

Language interests people based on how it is connected to the culture or the psychology of the people who are using it. Whorf’s hypothesis was based most prominently on differences that he observed between languages like English and Hopi, the language of the Hopi Native Americans.

However, one has to be very careful when looking at all languages as opposed to the ones that happened to interest Whorf. While people throughout the years have tried to support Whorf scientifically, it has never really come out in a very interesting way.

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Navajo Grammar

Navajo has different verbs for handling things, depending on their shape. A lot of Native American languages have a shape-of-things fetish—a lot of languages do. It’s not a European thing, but it’s common around the world.

So if one is handling something and it’s long and flexible, like a dead snake, the word for it is šańléh. But if one is handling something that’s long and rigid, like a big, giant pencil, then the word is šańtí̧̧í̧h. The idea is that Navajo seems to have this grammatical sensitivity to the proportions and the shapes of objects.

Distinguishing Shapes and Colors

Image of different shaped blocks in various colors.
A common thing in all languages is distinguishing things based on shapes and colors. (Image: keki/Shutterstock)

There was a small but interesting experiment. Navajo kids, when given a whole bunch of objects, tended more to distinguish them by form and by shape rather than by size and color, as English-speaking kids did. English-speaking kids put things together in terms of this one is big and red, this one is big blue. On the other hand, the Navajo kids thought of form and shape, using distinctions, such as round ones, the long flexible ones, and the long stiff ones.

That seemed kind of interesting, and that was thought of as an indication that the Navajo grammar must shape how you approach the world.

But then they did another experiment where black kids from Harlem were more likely to use the size and the color, whereas it was the white kids who tended to use shape and form.

So here was a whole different kind of experiment. Not only were the white kids doing something different, but it was a difference based on local race—and apparently, after we looked at all of these Navajo experiments—a class issue.

So, it was not about the Navajo grammar and it was not about specific Navajo culture. It seemed to be about something else, not what Whorf would have predicted.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Navajo and English

Another interesting Navajo study was based on the idea that the Navajo traditionally have been nomads, so one would expect a certain sensitivity to motion and going in Navajo.

There was one scholar who noted that Navajo has separate particles that one can put on a kind of all-purpose motion verb, so one can have move on all fours, move at a run, move by flying, move by floating on water or move by rolling. The idea was that these particles that all describe moving in different ways must mean that a Navajo person is very sensitized to motion because it used to be the Navajo way to always be in motion.

It’s interesting that in English there is a way of distinguishing that action. English speakers use the words crawl, fly, run, and so on, but Navajo doesn’t have single words like those. Navajo has this kind of go verb which they modify with the particles.

So in other words, Navajo and English are the same. When a Navajo person says move by floating on water, an English person would say float. Those are equivalent sorts of things. However, there have been examples of experiments where Whorf’s ideas are confirmed in small ways.

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How People See Color

There are many languages in the world where the word for green and blue is the same. There are many languages where you will have red and yellow and what linguists often call grue. There is often a grue term, which is green and blue. For many people that nexus is such that green and blue are the same color.

There’s a group of hunter-gatherers in Papua New Guinea. They are called the Barinmo. They have a grue term. To them, there is no separate green or blue.

Color wheel with different color gradients.
There are subtle differences in how people see color based on their grammar. (Image: picoStudio/Shutterstock)

There was an experiment done which showed that actually they are rather slow at distinguishing between a green chip and a blue chip. They can see the difference, but they don’t distinguish as quickly as an English-speaker would.

However, they have two yellows. So where an English speaker would just see yellow, they can immediately separate the bone-colored one from the egg-yolk colored one, or whatever the actual colors are. They do that more quickly than English speakers do. It’s not that English speakers don’t see the difference, but for them it’s not important.

So far, these experiments only show that there are certain subtle differences in how people see color based on their grammar, and this is not related to culture.

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Gender of Inanimate Objects

Very recent work has shown that if one asks certain Europeans who have gender what voice inanimate objects would talk in, this correlates meaningfully with what the gender of the word happens to be in their language. So in French, table is la table. On the other hand, an English speaker would probably think of table as man because tables have square corners and are kind of inert—nothing related to a woman.

So, is that culture? For one thing, French people do not walk around thinking about this sort of thing consciously. One has to elicit it very carefully in experiments. These things are very subtle.

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Language and Culture

In any case, even if there are these little blips with the gender and the color, it’s nothing like the grammar channeling thought, culture, and even disposition that Benjamin Lee Whorf was arguing about.

So, language and culture are not as tightly linked as often taught. There is a kind of self-directed change that’s mediated by how many people are learning the language non-natively. That’s something that has a kinship with the way natural things develop, like animals and plants. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in general, has never been proven to the extent that is often implied.

Common Questions About Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Q: What was Whorf’s hypothesis based on?

Whorf’s hypothesis was based most prominently on differences that he observed between languages like English and Hopi, the language of the Hopi Native Americans.

Q: Are language and culture as tightly linked as often taught?

Language and culture are not as tightly linked as often taught. There is a kind of self-directed change that’s mediated by how many people are learning the language non-natively. That’s something that has a kinship with the way natural things develop, like animals and plants.

Q: Has the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis been proven?

While people throughout the years have tried to support Whorf scientifically, it has never really come out in a very interesting way. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in general, has never been proven to the extent that is often implied.

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