words make thoughts, or influence them at least: an introduction to the sapir-whorf hypothesis

2020-02-03

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~2 min read

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293 words

I recently heard about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. According to Wikipedia, the hypothesis, “is a principle claiming that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition, and thus people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language.”1

Continuing from Wikipedia:

The principle is often defined in one of two versions: the strong hypothesis, which was held by some of the early linguists before World War II,[1] and the weak hypothesis, mostly held by some of the modern linguists.[1]

  • The strong version says that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories.
  • The weak version says that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis reminds me of the benefits that accrue from learning. That is, when I learn a new concept (such as a new word), I have a new tool in my tool set with which to approach problems. It literally opens up new pathways in how I think and broadens the landscape of what’s possible.

Side Note: I suspect that the way new words provide new tools is part of the appeal for untranslatable words (e.g., sisu2, ikigai, etc.). They expand our awareness and in that way help shake up our ways of thinking about problems to arrive at new conclusions.3

Footnotes


Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!