Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis/ Language and Thought

I’m going to Uni here in Germany, and my friend is convinced that our native language has a huge impact on the way we think and behave. I’ve heard this idea before, and upon looking it up it’s called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, for anyone curious. I may not be an expert on neuroscience, but I can’t help but intuitively reject this idea. I could see language affecting our thoughts in some limited ways, but I think the culture is far more important in affecting how we think. What do you guys think?

I would suggest that before you categorical reject ideas you read up on them first. When you think about it, it is rather obvious that not only culture affects the way we think but language too. You do concede the point to a certain degree. May I ask you in what limited ways do you think that language affects our thoughts?

There are a lot of sources on Internet that you can use to get more information, here is just one example: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis | i love english language

Thanks for the article! I did read a few articles on Sapir-Whorf before, but this one laid out a lot of good information. I wouldn’t say I “categorically reject” Sapir Whorf, but I do mostly reject it. Here’s a few points of contention I have with it.

(With the strong “determinist” version, and the idea that language determines our thoughts.) First, I can’t buy this idea that we think only with language, or even that we think primarily with language. I think we “express” our thoughts with language, but that it’s clearly possible to “think” without language. If problem solving were not possible without language, how would intelligent non-human animals (ravens, dolphins) be capable of solving complex problems?

Second, while in my experience with language, I’ve definitely seen that thoughts can be expressed in very different ways, I can’t help but think that the differences between languages are somewhat superficial. For instance, I’ve had people tell me that because Mandarin Chinese “doesn’t have a future or a past tense”, Chinese are more mindful of tradition, because they see time as an unbroken whole. However, to me Chinese doesn’t really lack a past and a future, they just express it differently. They still understand the concepts of past and future, they simply don’t conjugate verbs differently based on time. “I go tomorrow” serves as a sort of future. I really think that human languages are remarkably similar in what they can express.

I have heard of the color perception thing–but it seems flawed. If we decided tomorrow that blue and green would be called “dazzle” from now on, I could certainly do so. Alternatively, if light blue was to be called “razzle” and dark blue “fizzle”, I think I could cope with that, too. I don’t think I’m fundamentally hardwired from English to be unable to name more hues, or group current colors together into less colors.

Thank you for responding and thank you for your time.

The Sapir-Whorf debate is always an interesting one. While the strong version would seem less likely, a weaker form of it is pretty convincing. Language IS culture, and we experience the world through our cultural/linguistic filters. What makes languages rich is that there are so many words that cannot be directly translated, and these words suggest a different experience of the world, i.e. noticing and paying attention to some things more than others. A possible conversation we might have in northern England might go something like

“Is it raining outside?”
“No, not really, just mizzling.”
“OK then, let’s go for a walk. I’ll get my coat.”

We have a word for a kind of rain that we don’t think of as rain, although I’m sure in other parts of the world it would be definitely described as rain. In a different language or English dialect you could describe this type of rain, but the lack of a precise word would suggest it has less significance and bearing on how the world is experienced (and whether we can go for a walk!). Spanish has the word “bastante” that seems to occupy a space between “suficiente” (sufficient, enough) and “demasiado” (too much). If you try you can express this quantity in English, but not with great ease, and nowhere near as simply as in Spanish. Usually we just translate it as “enough” but anyone who has spent anytime with Spanish-speakers knows that this doesn’t evoke the rich meaning of the word.

The fact that some languages and dialects have bigger vocabularies for particular parts of life does suggest that language reflects different experiences and in turn determines those experiences. Language is a product of cultural interactions and reflects its speakers’ concerns. Growing up, I learned about a dozen words for rain, and the difference matters around here :wink: … Similarly, other languages have kinship terms lacking in English because the differences matter in those languages. So as you say, in theory we can experience the world outside of language, but in practical terms we don’t, because our language has given us a vocabulary to describe the stuff most important to us.

For some reason this reminds me of the First and Last thoughts of the Sperm Whale in Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy: