Anthropology Whorfian Hypothesis
Daniel Casasanto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0058


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (a.k.a. the Whorfian hypothesis) concerns the relationship between language and thought. Neither the anthropological linguist Edward Sapir (b. 1884–d. 1939) nor his student Benjamin Whorf (b. 1897–d. 1941) ever formally stated any single hypothesis about the influence of language on nonlinguistic cognition and perception. On the basis of their writings, however, two proposals emerged, generating decades of controversy among anthropologists, linguists, philosophers, and psychologists. According to the more radical proposal, linguistic determinism, the languages that people speak rigidly determine the way they perceive and understand the world. On the more moderate proposal, linguistic relativity, habits of using language influence habits of thinking. As a result, people who speak different languages think differently in predictable ways. During the latter half of the 20th century, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was widely regarded as false. Around the turn of the 21st century, however, experimental evidence reopened debate about the extent to which language shapes nonlinguistic cognition and perception. Scientific tests of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity help to clarify what is universal in the human mind and what depends on the particulars of people’s physical and social experience.

General Overviews and Foundational Texts

Writing on the relationship between language and thought predates Sapir and Whorf, and extends beyond the academy. The 19th-century German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt argued that language constrains people’s worldview, foreshadowing the idea of linguistic determinism later articulated in Sapir 1929 and Whorf 1956 (Humboldt 1988). The intuition that language radically determines thought has been explored in works of fiction such as Orwell’s dystopian fantasy 1984 (Orwell 1949). Although there is little empirical support for radical linguistic determinism, more moderate forms of linguistic relativity continue to generate influential research, reviewed from an anthropologist’s perspective in Lucy 1997, from a psychologist’s perspective in Hunt and Agnoli 1991, and discussed from multidisciplinary perspectives in Gumperz and Levinson 1996 and Gentner and Goldin-Meadow 2003.

  • Gentner, Dedre, and Susan Goldin-Meadow, eds. 2003. Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Edited volume containing position papers for and against linguistic relativity. Includes reviews of some of the experimental studies that revived widespread interest in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at the beginning of the 21st century.

  • Gumperz, John J., and Stephen C. Levinson, eds. 1996. Rethinking linguistic relativity. Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language 17. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Edited volume containing position papers for and against linguistic relativity. A cross-section of Whorfian research in anthropology, psychology, and linguistics at the end of the 20th century.

  • Humboldt, Wilhelm von. 1988. On language: The diversity of human language-structure and its influence on the mental development of mankind. Translated by Peter Heath. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Humboldt argues that language determines one’s world view.

  • Hunt, Earl, and Franca Agnoli. 1991. The Whorfian hypothesis: A cognitive psychology perspective. Psychological Review 98.3: 377–389.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.98.3.377

    A critical review of 20th-century Whorfian research, in which the authors sketch proposals for several studies that were brought to fruition by other researchers over the ensuing two decades.

  • Lucy, John A. 1997. Linguistic relativity. Annual Review of Anthropology 26:291–312.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.26.1.291

    A review focusing on the various ways in which the Whorfian question was approached empirically during the 20th century.

  • Orwell, George. 1949. 1984: A novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

    Fictitious account of a totalitarian state in which language is used to control thought.

  • Sapir, E. 1929. The status of linguistics as a science. Language 5:207–214.

    DOI: 10.2307/409588

    Sapir states the view that language shapes one’s worldview, subsequently called linguistic determinism.

  • Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    The definitive collection of Whorf’s writings, some posthumously published.

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