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Magdalena Dudka AN II

Sapir- Whorf hypothesis and its usage

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (SWH), also known as linguistic relativity principle

claims a systematic relationship between the grammatical cathegories of the language of the
speaker and how the speaker himself both understands the world and behaves in it. The
hypothesis postulates that the habitual thought of the language, speaker is influenced by
nature of a particular language.
If the pattern of language changes, then the thought pattern is also different.

Late eighteenth and early ninetheenth century was the time when similar ideas were
advanced for the first time. Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried Herder (both were
students of Immanuel Kant) showed early version og linguistic relativity in their work.
Another German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt in his essay On the comparative study of
languages (original Title Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium) shows a well-known
defence of the doctrine.

Franz Boas

The roots of Sapir-Wharf Hypothesis lead to the work of Franz Boas (July 9, 1858 -
December 12,1942) who is said to be the founder of anthropology in the United States. He
was of American-German origins and a pioneer of modern anthropology. He was also trained
in many other diciplines: re received his doctorate in physics, he also did post-doctoral work
in geography. He studied in Germany and after he moved to the United States he encountered
Native American languages from many different linguistic families. The all differed
significantly from the Semitic and Indo-Europead languages. Thanks to studies on these
languages Boas realised how many varieties of ways of life and grammatical cathegories one
can find between localities. As a result he claimes that coulture and behaviour of people are
reflected in the language they speak.

Edward Sapir
Edward Sapir (January 26, 1884 - February 4, 1939) was a Jewish-German-American
anthropologist and star student of Franz Boas’. He was also leader in American structural
linguistics. He is one of the most influencial figures in American linguistics inspiring
linguists across several linguistic schools. In 1904 he receives his B.A. and a year after his
M.A. both in German philology, but his inetrests were much broader. He studied languages of
Southwestern Oregon and he did his PhD in anthropology. He published 12 books and a great
number of essays and articles

Benajmin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf (April 24, 1897 - July 26, 1941) was an America linguist and
student of Edward Sapir’s. Together with his professor he created linguistic relativity
hypothesis, and for this he became well-known. in sociolinguistic circles. Whorf studied
linguistics at Yale University. He was primarily interested in Native American languages,
particularly those of Mesoamerica but his work about Hopi language brought him fame. He
wrote three books but he is well-known for his essay The Relation of Habitual Thought and
Behaviour to Language. Because Whorf was a student not a professional linguist, his work on
linguistic relativity did not become popular up untill the posthumous publication of his
writings in 1950s.

The development and standardalization of Interlingua were strongly influenced by the

SWH during the first half of 20th century but largely thanks to Sapir’s direct involvement.In
order to test the hypothesis Loglan constructed language was created by Dr. James Cooke
Brown in 1955 (Lojban, a reformed variant of Loglan is still used). The goal of Brown’s work
was to create a language completely different from natural languages. If the hypothesis were
true, the artificial language would affect people learning it. Unfortunately, no such experiment
was ever conducted.
In 1960s the work on Whorf fell out of favour because linguistic theories created in
that time (also by Noam Chomsky) were focused on the innateness and universality of
language. It was said that thought is independent of language and that language itself is
meaningless. It was claimed that human beings do not even think in batural language.
Comparing to that, Whorf’s radical theory was said to deny that language contains any
thought or culture. Steven Pinker, a linguist of that time and strong Whorf’s oponent, said: the
more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make.

George Lakoff, who represented a more Whorfian approach, claimed that language is
essentially a metaphor. Good example here is English which employs many metaphors that
equate time and money, for instance
- spend time
- waste time
- invest time
- free time

Interest in Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were renewed in late 1980s and early 1990s as a
result of advances in cognitive psychology and anthropological linguistics. Nowadays
there are some discussions about how atrongly language influences thought.

The language has absolutely no influence on thought. The most extreme opposing
opinion is widely considered to be false. So is strong version of SWH which says that
language determines thought. The moxt common view is that truth lies somewhere
inbetween the two. So Whorf himself thought and never held the strong form of his
hypothesis. Currently scientists study not whether but rather how the language affects
thought. Earlier the research was focuseod on supporting or disagreeing with the thesis.
Investigation confirms that tere is a particular connection in human brain between
semantic concepts (like the idea of a table) and phonetic representation (the sounds that
make up the word table).

Whorf’s study of the language of the Innuit people is one of the most popular
examples of linguistic determinism. However the two ideas had completely different
starting points, both of them claimed that the language shapes the thought. In his work
Whorf argues that the language of the Eskimo creates a different mode of existance for
them. As a opposing idea there is a book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax by Geoffrey
Pullum, who prove that Arctic people do not have more expressions for snow, so the
enviroment in which they live and their language are not connected with each other in any

Mould theories and cloak theories are two terms in linguistic theory which refer to the
relationship between tha language and the thought. First one represents language as a
mould in terms of which thought categories are cast. The second one claimes that
language is a cloak conforming to the customary categories of thought of its speakers. The
SWH theory is a mould theory. In 1929 Sapir wrote:

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
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
interpretation. (Sapir 1958 [1929], p. 69)
In 1930s Whorf extended this view by declaring:

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. (Whorf 1940, pp.
213-14; his emphasis)

The quotations above give the idea that both Sapir and Whorf found involved in the way
they considered language.

The SWH consists of two related principles: linguistic determinism, which says that
our thinking is determined by the language we speak, and linguistic relativity, which
claims that people perceive the world differently if they speak different languages. As a
result of such thinking, a translation from one language to another becomes quite
problematic, sometimes even impossible. It is also claimed that any reformulation of
words result in change of the meaning.
Worfianism is ver broad. For egzample it sees realing as a kind of translation.
According to Whorf, the meaning does not reside in text but in the interpretation of the
text, so while reading there is always a slight change of sense of words. In common usage,
we often talk about different ways of expressing the same thing, but Whorf thought that it
is impossible to have the same meaning and different ways of expressing it.
Reformulating the words will affect the understading and perceiving the meaning.
Of course, the importance of what is lost in translation varies. The issue is largely
considered to be the most important in literary writing. It shows how the translator felt
about the translation and the poem itself. With more pragmatic and less expressive and
creative translations are usually seen as those in which the usage of particular words in not
The Whorfian perspective stands in strong opposition to linguistic universalism and
representatives of the cloak theory, who said that language is simply a dress of thought
and that one thing can be expressed in manz different ways. Universalists saw no problem
in translating the text from one language to another. Thez claimed that whatever we saz in
one language can be easily translated and expressed in another. This is the most common
negation of Whorfs thesis. No matter how logical thoughts of universalists may appear,
many linguists and philosophers find various difficulties in translations. The philosopher
Karl Popper once said The fact is, 'that even totally different languages are not

There are supporters of both extreme and deterministic form of Sapir-Whorf

Hypothesis and its weaker, more moderate form. Here are some differences between
moderate and extreme Whorfianism:
- the weaker form puts the emphasis on the potential of thinking to be influenced rather
than determined by language
- it is a two-way process: not onlz the language influences our thought but also the waz
we perceive the world influences, to some extent, our language
- emphasis is given to the social context of language use rather than to purely linguistic

The Usage of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Presence in the literature

There are several examples od Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis present in the literature, for
- A striking example of linguistic determinism and relativity in Newspeak - an artificial
language created by George Orwell in his famous book Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell’s presumption was that if people cannot create the words to express the ideas
underlying revolution, they cannot rebel.
- In an ancient language (also known as Old Speech) created by Ursula LeGuin in
Earthsea series every object has only one true name. In another novel The
Dispossessed LeGuin creates an artificial language which has possibly little ways of
expressing possessive relations
- In the novel Anthem (1938) by Ayn Rand the word I is banned and those who use it
are killed
- In novella Gulf (1949) by Robert Heinlein the characters were taught to use an
artificial language which allows them to think logically.
- One of the characters of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965) is shocked by the
violence of the language of native people of Dune and she believes that a culture of
enormous violence is reflected by the choice of words and grammatical stucture of the

How language affects our understanding of soccer

Being extremely logical, the Sapir-Whor Hypothesis can explain a lot about how the
game of soccer is viewed by the people around the world. The opinion coined by Sapir
and his student says that the language not only helps us to describe the world but also
shapes it. Combination of linguistic hypothesis and the name of the game of soccer looks
a bit unusual, but still there is an explanation for that.
Soccer, the game bound by a single set of 17 laws, varies from one country to another.
SWH is useful in explaining these differences. According to the hypothesis people see the
game differently because they use other words to describe it. But why the way the
Spaniards and Costa Ricans perceive the game differently. In both countries people speak
Spanish, but the Costa Rican terms describing positions of players are not even similar to
these which are used by people from Spain. Spanish word for defender is defensa, for
midfielder – mediocampista and for forward – delantero. Costa Ricans have a word
enganchar. It is very difficult to day which position is sescribed by this word because the
word itself literally means “a hook”. Enganche turns out to be a playmaker. For a
foreigner it is very difficult to understand the word because it is perceived in a different
In the history of soccer it is easy to find a case when it was necessary to create a new
term decsribing a player. Franz Beckenbauer was a player who developed his own unique
style of playing. He started his carrier as a midfielder, but then he shifted further back to
be a sweeper. He was not really satisfied with his role in the team, he prefered playing in
the front and creating attacks, so he was no longer either a sweeper or a midfielder, and
this forced soccer players and fans to creating a new term for the player namely libero.
Future player who played in similarly hybrid way were also described as liberos. Again,
the word itself is not a name of position, it shapes our view on the play, gives us an image
of a particular style of playing soccer and it also can shape the reality – some players may
just want to be like Beckenbauer, so they practise his way of playing to became a libero.
Linguistic differences may also affect the view of fauls. Spanish speaker often use a
word la plancha which literal meaning does not have much to do with the soccer. It
describes a straight-legged, cleats-up tackle. As they have a single word to describe this
particular king of tackle, people from Spanish-speaking regions are more likely to ba
aware of the offense. It does not claim that Spanish players are less sensitive to such
tackles, but possibility of using only one word describing it hightens up the people’s
awarness of the meaning. Often Spanish players gesture to the referee after whet they
interpret to be la plancha. It is certain that players all over the word see this tackle as very
offensive. But Latin Americans perceive them as twice as huge offence. In Argentina red
cards are often given to players for using la plancha while similar play in Premiere Ligue
stays unpunished.
Enganche, trequartista, libero, and la plancha are examples of words widely used in
the game of soccer but they do not really describe a position of a player or a particular
tackle. They rather shape the way the players and fans see the game. The usage of these
word can affect the feedback and reactions of both groups. We cannot be sure whether
they would have the same power over people if they were translated into English or
German or any other language.
And here another problem appears: is it possible to translate them? If yes, what would
be lost in the translation? Or maybe is it better to leave them as they are, using Spanish
terms to describe not positions, styles of playing or types of tackles, but rather certain
images like Beckenbauer’s typical behaviour during a match, or the feeling of enormous
offence after la plancha which is not only a straight-legged, cleats-up tackle, but
something even whorse.
No matter how strange the words: linguistic theory and the theory of soccer may look
when they are combined together in one sentence, they just make a new field of research
for the linguists. It only shows how broad the language and also the Sapir-Whorf
Hypothesis is. Understanding of soccer with the help of SWH is just one egzample. We
can study every single part of our life using the hypothesis as a mean of understanding.
There are people who agrue about whether some hypotheses are right or wrong. I,
personally, prefer to judge them in terms of being useful or not. The one I described is
undeniably very useful.