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Nov 28, 2019 in Analysis

Evidence for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Introduction

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the structure of a language one uses affects the way he/she examines the world, makes comparisons, and logical conclusions. The entire cognitive process is largely influenced by the structure of a language as significant differences exist between the users of different languages. This hypothesis is evaluated differently by various experts. Although some of them criticize it and consider that it does not reflect the relationships between the structure of a language and people’s perception properly, a large number of empirical evidences either directly or indirectly support it. It seems that the current state of linguistic knowledge supports (or at least makes more plausible) the weak version of the hypothesis while the strong version contains some unsupported claims.

 
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Strong and Weak Versions of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also widely known as the principle of linguistic relativity. However, Zinken shows that it is largely a metaphor that does not share the main principles of relativity from other sciences. Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis focuses on the role of the structure of a language, there are two main versions of it. The strong version refers to a position that language structures directly determine thought patterns. Consequently, cognitive processes are not independent but merely reflect the linguistic influence. The advocates of this position suggest that language can considerably affect some aspects of reality at least from a subjective perspective of people’s perception. Language is primarily responsible for determining people’s automatic responses to various daily situations. The most widespread forms or words have the strongest impact on people’s perception.

The weak version of the hypothesis does not claim that linguistic structures directly affect one’s worldview and perception of reality. However, it recognizes the role of a language in influencing people’s behavior and some aspects of their worldview. Thus, thoughts and behavior are not directly determined by linguistic categories but are substantially influenced by them. This influence requires further investigation and empirical verification. However, the advocates of this version claim that language affects the way people examine problems and make corresponding decisions.

Evidences of the Hypothesis

The strong version of the hypothesis overestimates the influence of linguistic aspects in people’s actions and worldview. It does not recognize the independent essence of people’s cognitive processes and believes that individuals’ actions and choices can be completely explained by the existing linguistic factors. However, the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has a sufficient number of direct and indirect evidences. There are four major classes of evidence that are used for demonstrating the validity of this hypothesis.

The first class refers to the dominant distinctions in people’s lexicons. Any given lexicon reflects people’s ability to work and survive under specific external conditions. The environment includes both natural and social elements. Thus, the evolution of a language leads to the optimal adjustment of behavior to the external conditions. For example, narrow specialists and experts have to use a large number of specific terms and concepts. It means that they have to constantly modify the existing language patterns for meeting the existing strategies. The same principle can be extended to creating lexicons in different regions and countries.

As all languages have some specific words that do not have direct analogies in other ones, it demonstrates that experience and the environment in various locations are different. For example, Latin can describe blood in two different words (for blood inside and outside the body). As these distinctions are irrelevant in the majority of modern languages, they have only one word for blood. Thus, languages are affected by the existing social challenges. However, the advocates of the hypothesis stress that the structure of a language also influences people’s perceptions and priorities. This interpretation seems to be correct as almost all individuals formulate their objectives and plans verbally. Thus, language cannot be neutral in relation to the existing worldview within a given population. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize a more complicated pattern of these relationships than propose the advocates of the strong version.

The second group of evidence examines behavioral effects of linguistic differences. Although vocabulary differences may have a number of various behavioral effects, linguistic experts traditionally focus on color distinctions present in different languages. People’s abilities to perceive the spectrum of colors is identical all over the world. However, as various languages have a different number and specifications of colors, the representatives of some cultures may experience additional difficulties in recognizing these changes. The validity of this premise is confirmed by several classical and modern studies. In the traditional Kay-Kempton experiment, the representatives of different nations chose different colors that were the most different from other options. Moreover, when people had to choose from two rather than three options their choices were very different. It shows that they used various linguistic patterns for framing the experienced reality. They primarily relied on those languages that were typical in their languages.

Ciaccio and Bormann also support the hypothesis through investigating color perception of Italians and Germans. The green/blue boundary exists in both languages while the light blue/dark blue one is present only in Italian. People’s perceptions obtained from this test clearly show that Italians were more correct in appraising the latter boundary that is defined in their language. Germans were imprecise in this regard. Although the authors of the experiment suggest that it is reasonable to introduce additional qualitative methods for investigating of their responses, the obtained results are statistically significant that significant differences in the responses of two groups exist. These differences are observed in the same sphere as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis predicts. Thus, those boundaries and distinctions that correspond to different languages determine or at least substantially influence individuals’ framing of observed colors.

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 The third group of evidences deals with basic grammatical structures and their differences in various languages. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be valid only if fundamental grammatical structures differ in relation to various languages. It does not mean that any couple of languages should reflect identical differences because some languages are more closely related to one another than others. However, it means that some basic grammar differences are essential for affecting the existing worldview and perception. Some critics of the hypothesis agree with the position that lexicon may be very different in various cultures, but they expect to see almost identical grammar structures. 

However, the existing empirical evidences clearly support the weak version of the hypothesis. Some Native American languages do not make any strict separation between entities and states of affairs. Moreover, the grammar structures of action types, time frames, and other relevant aspects are not identical in different languages. It demonstrates that lexicon and some related to it differences do not reflect the basic differences between languages. The reason is that differences in words constitute only a minor part of differences. The major part refers to differences in grammatical structures. According to the advocates of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it may be explained due to various experiences of different cultures and corresponding approaches to framing the external reality. As grammatical structures are very different, people have to perceive reality through a given system of grammar tools. Correspondingly, their various approaches lead to different ultimate results. Therefore, some differences may be understood only taking into account deep levels of grammatical structures. It seems that the weak version of the hypothesis effectively describes the main existing interconnections between grammar, language, and behavior.

The fourth class of evidence refers to the impact of grammatical structure on behavior. This impact was neglected or disputed for a long period of time. However, the existing empirical information about various languages and their effects support the postulates of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It is especially evident in relation to some Native American languages that differ from traditional ones. For example, the representatives of the Navajo culture provide all relevant information about flexibility, shape, and other relevant characteristics of objects through specific verb forms. Such verb forms are absent in all other languages because their users do not have a need in obtaining this information in such an urgent way. 

This framing of information may be explained by the dominant needs of a given population. At the same time, this structure of a language further affects people’s actions, strategies, and choices. Several studies have compared the behavior of Navajo and English-speaking children. One of the most relevant aspects in this context is their strategies of choice. When both groups of children had a yellow stick and blue rope, they had to decide which of these two objects goes with a blue stick. If both cultures used the same grammatical structure and verb forms, they would choose the same object. However, their actual choices were different. The choice of English-speaking children is predictable; they have chosen a blue rope. Navajo children have chosen a yellow stick, and it demonstrates considerable differences in their perception. Thus, the choices of the representatives of an English-speaking community were focused on color while those of a Native American one were concentrated on shape. Both these choices are rational and correct as they reflect people’s specific experience and needs.

Thus, there are a large number of empirical evidences that support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Although its strong version contains some unsupported claims, the weak version seems to adequately represent the impact of linguistic categories on people’s choices. For this reason, the majority of modern supporters of this hypothesis further elaborate on its weak version. They stress the following aspects to make the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis more correct and precise. First, they show that language influences the potential and directions of thinking. They recognize that human cognitive abilities cannot be directly affected by language or any other factors. The impact of a language is examined from a broad social context. Therefore, modern scientists tend to rely not only on mere linguistic concepts in their analysis. 

The implications of language effects are also extended to new areas. If some determined impact is significant, it is not necessarily attributed to any single language. The relationships between several languages are examined as well as the structure of various sub-groups within a given language. This approach allows making more reasonable and effective suggestions about the impact on human behavior and its secondary consequences. Modern researchers explicitly stress that the relationships between language and the external world are mutually interdependent. On the one hand, the most important experience and strong needs determine the structure of a language and its evolution. On the other hand, the existing structure of a language is also non-neutral to people’s further behavior. They tend to act in a way that is in accordance with their worldview and fundamental principles. Therefore, any language may influence people’s behavior and choices to some extent. 

It may be expected that the evolution of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its further elaborations will develop in accordance with the current trend. Additional nuances and minor factors can be further examined and compared. More specific linguistic models may emerge that will minimize the main current linguistic contradictions and confusions. In the long run, all interactions may be better understood and examined. It seems that a considerable amount of new evidences supporting the hypothesis can be obtained through implementing new social and psychological experiments.

Conclusion

Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is evaluated differently by various scholars, the evidences provided in this paper show that its weak version is both theoretically well-developed and supported by corresponding empirical facts. The structure of a language significantly influences people’s behavior, choices, and worldview. At the same time, the formation of the structure of a language is also largely caused by the most relevant experience and needs of a given population. The language of Navajo people is one of the examples how grammatical structure and verb forms are adjusted to the needs in information that should be delivered at the shortest possible period of time.

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems to be incorrect both from a theoretical perspective and practical considerations. It attributes all choices and preferences to the influence of a language. As it does not recognize the independent essence of human consciousness, it cannot be considered as being valid. Moreover, the fact that people speaking the same language may adopt very different modes of behavior shows that language is not the only (and not always the major) factor affecting people’s actions and behavior. Thus, the majority of modern researchers in this field work in the direction of further elaboration of the weak version of the hypothesis. Although it may also require further investigation and elaborations, it significantly contributes to a better understanding of relationships between languages, human behavior, and choices.

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