Sapir-Whorf language theory

Traditionally, human beings have understood language as a means of communication through which it is possible to establish a connection with the world and allows us to express what we think or feel.

This design sees language as a way to express what is already inside. However, by Sapir-Whorf language theory, this is of much greater importance, Having a much more important role in the organization, the reflection or even the perception of the world.

And it is that if the relation between thought and language has been an area of ​​study that has generated much interest from psychologists and linguists, few theories have gone so far when it comes time to link these two. worlds.

    When language shapes thought

    According to the Sapir-Whorf theory of human language communication at the verbal level, the use of language in human beings, it is not limited to expressing our mental content. For this theory, language plays a very important role in shaping our way of thinking and even our perception of reality, determining or influencing our view of the world.

    In this way, the grammatical categories in which the language classifies the world around us make us adhere to a specific way of thinking, reasoning and perceiving, being linked to the culture and the context of communication in which we are all immersed. throughout our childhood. In other words, the structure of our language this prompts us to use concrete structures and interpretive strategies.

    Likewise, Sapir-Whorf’s language theory states that each language has its own terms and conceptualizations which cannot be explained in other languages. This theory therefore emphasizes the role of cultural context in providing a framework within which to develop our perceptions, so that we can observe the world from here on socially imposed margins.

    some examples

    For example, Eskimos are used to living in cold environments with a lot of snow and ice, possessing in their language the ability to distinguish between different types of snow. Compared to other peoples, this helps to make them much more aware of the nature and context in which they live, being able to perceive the nuances of reality that a Westerner escapes.

    Another example can be seen in some tribes in the language there are no references to time. These people have difficulty conceptualizing time units. Other peoples do not have words to express certain colors, such as orange.

    A last example, much more recent can occur with the term umami, a Japanese concept which speaks of a taste derived from the concentration of glutamate and which for other languages ​​has no concrete translation, being difficult to describe for a western person.

      Two versions of the Sapir-Whorf theory

      Over time and reviews and demonstrations that seemed to indicate that the effect of language on thought is not as modulating perception as theory initially stated, Sapir-Whorf’s language theory has undergone some subsequent modifications. This is why we can speak of two versions of this theory.

      1. Strong hypothesis: linguistic determinism

      Sapir-Whorf’s initial view of language theory had a very deterministic and radical view of the role of language. For the strong Whorfian hypothesis, language completely determines our opinion, Ability to think and perceive, to shape them and we can even consider that thought and language are essentially the same.

      According to this premise, a person whose tongue does not contemplate a certain concept will not be able to understand or distinguish. For example, a person who does not have a vocabulary for the color orange will not be able to distinguish one stimulus from another if the only difference is the color. In the case of those who do not include temporal notions in their speech, they will not be able to distinguish between what happened a month ago and what happened twenty years ago, nor between the present, the past or the future.


      Several subsequent studies have shown that the Sapir-Whorf language theory this is not correct, at least in its deterministic conception, Conduct experiments and research that at least partially reflect its falsity.

      Ignorance of a concept does not imply that it cannot be created in a given language, which, under the strong assumption, would not be possible. Although a concept may not have a specific correlate in another language, it is possible to generate alternatives.

      Continuing the examples of the previous points, if the strong hypothesis was correct, the peoples who do not have a word to define a color they could only distinguish two equal stimuli in this aspect, As they could not perceive the differences. However, experimental studies have shown that they are perfectly able to distinguish these stimuli from others of a different color.

      Likewise, we may not have a translation for the term umami, but if we are able to detect that it is a flavor that leaves a velvety sensation in the mouth, leaving a lingering and subtle aftertaste.

      Other linguistic theories, such as Chomsky, have also studied and indicated that although language is acquired through a long process of learning, there are partially innate mechanisms which, before the emergence of language as such, exist allow to observe the communicative aspects and even the existence of concepts in infants. , being common to most known peoples.

        2. Weak hypothesis: linguistic relativism

        The initial deterministic hypothesis was, over time, modified in the face of the evidence that the examples used to defend it were not entirely valid or demonstrated a total determination of thought through language.

        However, Sapir-Whorf’s theory of language was developed in a second version, according to which while language does not by itself determine thought and perception, it does. it turns out to be an element that contributes to giving it shape and influence in the type of content you pay the most attention to.

        For example, it is proposed that the characteristics of the spoken language may influence the way certain concepts are conceived or the attention that certain nuances of the concept receive at the expense of others.


        This second version found empirical evidence because it reflects that the fact that a person has difficulty conceptualizing a certain aspect of reality because his language does not contemplate it prevents him from focusing on those aspects.

        For example, while a Spanish speaker tends to pay particular attention to verbal tense, others like Turkish tend to focus on performing the action, or English on spatial position. This way, each language favors the highlighting of specific aspects, Which, acting in the real world, may elicit slightly different reactions and responses. For example, it will be easier for the Spanish speaker to remember when something happened than where he is asked to remember it.

        It can also be observed when classifying objects. While some people will use the form to catalog objects, others will tend to associate things by their material or color.

        The fact that there is no particular concept in language means that although we are able to perceive it, we do not tend to pay attention to it. If for us and our culture it doesn’t matter if what happened a day or a month ago, if they ask us directly when it happened, it will be difficult for us to give an answer because it is something in which we never thought. Or if we are presented with something with a strange characteristic, such as a color that we have never seen, it can be perceived but will not be decisive in making distinctions unless coloring is an important part of our thinking.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Parra, M. (sf). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Department of Linguistics, National University of Colombia.
        • Sapir, E. (1931). Conceptual categories in primitive languages. Science.
        • Schaff, A. (1967). Language and knowledge. Grijalbo Editorial: Mexico.
        • Whorf, BL (1956). Language, thought and reality. The MIT Press, Massachusetts.

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