What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Relation to Language, Culture, and Society?

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf are 20th-century linguists renowned for their principle and popularization of the joint theory known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It is commonly referred to as the Theory of Linguistic Relativity. It holds great significance in all scopes of communication theories. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the grammatical and verbal structure of a person’s language has a profound influence on their perception of the world. It also lays stress on the point that language either determines or influences one’s thoughts. For instance, different words mean different things in different languages. Due to these small yet important differences, using the wrong word within a particular language can have crucial consequences.

The Linguistic Relativity Theory

Linguistic relativity is different from simple linguistic diversity and strict linguistic determinism. According to this theory, the use of language shapes our perspective of the world. Hence, people who speak different languages have different perspectives of the world. Sapir documented and recorded the cultures and languages of many Native American tribes who were disappearing at an alarming rate. He and his predecessors were aware of the close relationship between language and culture. He figured out that through the language of the culture, they are trying to truly understand the accurate worldview of its speakers. Whorf summed up that the opposite is also true – language impacts culture by influencing the thoughts of its speakers.

The studies conducted by Whorf at Yale which were performed while working with many Native American languages, including Hopi, helped him discover that the Hopi language is quite different from English to a great extent and particularly concerning time. Time is viewed as a “flowing river that carries us continuously through the present away from the past, and to the future,” by Western cultures and languages. However, in the Hopi language, there is no present, past, or future tense; there are manifested and unmanifest domains.

“The manifested domain consists of the physical universe, including the present, the immediate past, and the future; the unmanifest domain consists of the remote past and the future and the world of dreams, thoughts, desires, and life forces.”

The theory also proposed that the words and structures of a language also have an influence on the behavior of the speaker and how they feel about the world, and ultimately the culture itself. In simple terms, Whorf believed that you have a perception of the world which differs from another person who speaks another language and this is because of the specific language you speak.

According to Whorf, language users,

“dissect nature along the lines laid down by [their] native languages”

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