Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

"Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in
the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very
much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the
medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to
imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of
language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving
specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the
matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously
built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever
sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social
reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct
worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We
see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because
the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of

Edward Sapir, "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" (1929) in E.
Sapir, Culture, Language and Personality, ed. D. G. Mandelbaum,
University of California Press, 1958, p. 69.

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The
categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do
not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the
contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of
impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means
largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up,
organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances 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. The agreement is, of course, an
implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we
cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and
classification of data which the agreement decrees."

Benjamin Lee Whorf, Whorf, B. L. (1940): "Science and Linguistics," in
B. L. Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality, ed. J. B. Carroll, MIT
Press, 1956, pp. 213-14.