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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

In the 1930s, two anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, became intrigued when they noticed that the Hopi Indians of the southwestern United States had no words to distinguish among the past, the present, and the future. English, in contrast as well as French, spanish, Swahili, and other languages distinguishes carefully among these three time frames.

From this observation, Sapir and Whorf began to think that words might be more than labels that people attach to things. Eventually, they concluded that language has embedded within it ways of looking at the world. In other words, language not only expresses our thoughts and perceptions but also shapes the way we think and perceive. When we learn a language, we learn not only words but also ways of thinking and perceiving.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis indicates that rather than objects and events forcing themselves onto our consciousness, it is our language that determines our consciousness, and hence our perception of objects and events.

For English speakers, the term nuts combine almonds, walnuts, and pecans in such a way that we see them as belonging together. Although Sapir and Whorf's observation that the Hopi do not have tenses was inaccurate, they did stumble onto a major truth about social life. Learning a language means not only learning words but also acquiring the perceptions embedded in that language. In other words, language both reflects and shapes our cultural experiences.