The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Back to Contents

    Consider the simple joke of a terrorist who was sent to blow up a bus and burned his lips on the tailpipe. The phrase "to blow up" bears the denotation of forcing a gas into something and it bears two connotations that drive the joke: 1) it refers to an explosive abruptly putting hot, highly pressurized gas into a container that then deforms or shatters and 2) it refers to inflating a soft object, such as a balloon or air mattress. By referring to a terrorist and a bus, the joke raises the expectation that the first connotation will be carried out, with tragic consequences. But by referring to burned lips and the tailpipe, thereby replacing the first connotation with the second, the punch line collapses that expectation into a non-horrifying state. That analysis mimics a famous analysis of "empty gasoline drums" made by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930's and it illustrates one of the principles underlying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    Also known as the theory of linguistic relativity, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis emerged from the work of Edward Sapir (January 26, 1884 – February 4, 1939), an American anthropologist-linguist, a leader in American structural linguistics, and one of the creators of the hypothesis, and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897Apr 24 – 1941 Jul 26), who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering and shortly thereafter began work as a fire prevention engineer (inspector) for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, pursuing linguistic and anthropological studies as an avocation. The hypothesis primarily deals with the way that language affects thought. It claims that the structure of the language a person speaks affects the way that he or she thinks.

    Sapir noted that languages are systematic, formally complete systems; not merely words, but words and grammar taken together. Thus, it is not this nor that particular word that expresses a particular mode of thought and behavior, but the coherent and systematic nature of language interacting at a wider level with thought and behavior. Whorf refined this idea and expressed it by writing:

    "We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. 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 kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems of 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 […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated."

    Some of Whorf's early work on linguistics and particularly on linguistic relativity was inspired by reports he wrote on insurance losses, in which misunderstanding based on linguistic confusion had been a contributing factor. In an incident recounted in his essay "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language," (Whorf, 1956/1997), Whorf explains how the idea of language affecting thought first came to him. Employed as an investigator for a fire insurance company, his job had him investigating the causes of industrial fires. In his own words:

    "My analysis was directed toward purely physical conditions, such as defective wiring, presence or lack of air spaces between metal flues and woodwork, etc., and the results were presented in these terms. ... But in due course it became evident that not only a physical situation qua physics, but the meaning of that situation to people, was sometimes a factor, through the behavior of people, in the start of a fire. And this factor of meaning was clearest when it was a LINGUISTIC MEANING [Whorf's emphasis], residing in the name or the linguistic description commonly applied to this situation. Thus, around a storage of what are called 'gasoline drums,' behavior will tend to a certain type, that is, great care will be exercised; while around a storage of what are called 'empty gasoline drums,' it will tend to be different -- careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about. Yet the 'empty' drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor. Physically, the situation is hazardous, but the linguistic analysis according to regular analogy must employ the word 'empty,' which inevitably suggests a lack of hazard. The word 'empty' is used in two linguistic patterns: (1) as a virtual synonym for 'null and void, negative, inert,' (2) applied in analysis of physical situations without regard to, e.g., vapor, liquid vestiges, or stray rubbish, in the container." (Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality, 1956, p. 135)

    In studying the cause of a fire which had started under the conditions just described, Whorf inferred that it was men conceiving the empty gasoline drums as "empty" in the meaning described in the first definition above, that is as "inert", that led to a fire he investigated. In his papers and lectures he presented other examples from his insurance work to support and illustrate his belief that language shapes thought and understanding.

    Whorf based his analysis on the fact that a word has two fundamental aspects – denotation and connotation. The arbitrary noises that we make to evoke images in other people’s minds (and in our own minds) give us the denotations of the words that they manifest; thus, for example, when we utter the noise "horse" the image of a certain animal appears in the hearers’ minds. We get connotations when personal experience associates other images with the denotation. We may thus associate "horse" with cowboys driving a herd of cattle to a railhead, the Kentucky Derby, the shiny little surrey with the fringe on top, a cavalry charge, or any other of a vast number of images. Each connotation comes associated with an emotional response (e.g. the excitement of a cavalry charge) and thus gives meaning to the denotation. Those associations, noise with denotation and denotation with connotation, are entirely arbitrary and, thus, give us the possibility of linguistic relativity.

    That arbitrariness in language reflects our relationship with Reality. In Language and Myth (1925) Ernst Cassirer (1874 Jul 28 – 1945 Apr 13) presented the idea that the fundamental components of language originated in the act of people noticing things that had special significance for them. He founded his ideas upon Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism, which claims that we cannot know the actual world (the thing-in-itself), but that our we can only shape our view of reality through our means of perceiving it. Thus we can only have in our minds a model of reality, which model we create through a kind of pas de deux between perception and conception.

    Once we have devised language, with its denotations and connotations, we can turn it around. We find that concept conditions percept; what we think determines what we notice. A man working in a factory has in his unconscious mind the concept of "empty gasoline drums". On a break from his work he goes behind the factory and among the array of percepts that come to him through his eyes he notices a sign that says "empty gasoline drums" and the 55-gallon steel drums sitting under it. His emotions tend toward feeling of safety, a complete lack of anxiety, so he lights a cigarette with, in this case, tragic consequences. Thus we see how language influences behavior.

    So what does this have to do with fairy tales, particularly with fairy tales as a psychological phenomenon? The logic of fairy tales seems to mimic the logic of the unconscious mind, which reasons with connotations rather than with denotations. We think in similes and metaphors, so fairy tales provide a variety of those things to our growing minds.

    Metaphor gives us a means to extend vocabulary to express things otherwise inexpressible. "Juliet is the sun" from Romeo and Juliet is a metaphor, of which Shakespeare was a master craftsman. He knew nearly 30,000 words, but chose to use merely a few of them in appealing combinations (as well as making up some new ones as he went on his merry way). Metaphor relies not so much on a word’s denotation as upon its connotations. In the example given we have the sun, whose main connotations are those of light and warmth: the metaphor transfers those connotations to Juliet, making her the source of light and warmth to fill the dark and cold emotional world of Romeo’s soul.

    So how does this process work in fairy tales? Consider how it applies to Hansel and Gretel.

    In the story the parents carry the primary connotation of providers (of food, shelter, warmth, etc.), which evokes feelings of security and contentment. When those feelings are threatened by their abandonment in the forest, when the children feel anxiety, they compensate by finding an overindulgent old woman, a grandmother figure who connotes the satisfaction of all the children’s desires without reservation and restores their feelings of security and comfort. But then the old woman morphs into a witch, who connotes the destruction of security, thereby evoking feelings of fear. Rationally we say that the children’s overdependence on the woman has put them into jeopardy. But then the children assert enough independent behavior to save themselves, thereby extinguishing the feelings of fear. They then take wealth from the witch’s treasure hoard and return home, where they offer the wealth as provision for their parents and begin learning the skills needed to become dependent on themselves instead of on others, thereby gaining feelings of well-being.

    A child hearing the story is only consciously aware of the imagery of two children lost in a forest saving themselves and returning home. The emotional pattern associated with that imagery – dependence leading to anxiety, overdependence leading to fear, and independence leading to bliss – grows and remains in the child’s unconscious mind. That pattern then exists to give the child an emotional interpretation of events that are in some way analogous to the story and thus guide the child’s behavior.

    So, as we proceed through the fairy tales and their analyses, we shall see how language shapes the psyche of a child in accordance with the theory of Sigmund Freud. We shall see how vicarious participation in the story shapes the child’s reactions to the real world and improves their life.

efabef

Back to Contents