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Edward Sapir (1884 – 1939)

Edward Sapir (1884 – 1939)

Edward Sapir ( 1884 – 1939 ) was an anthropologist – American linguist . It is one of the reference figures of structural linguistics , and one of the creators of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
He was born in Lauenburg , Germany to an Orthodox Jewish family that would emigrate to the United States at the end of the 19th century. He was a disciple of the anthropologist Franz Boas , forerunner of cultural relativism , and professor of Benjamin Whorf . He is considered one of the most important linguists in the United States , and has influenced other important linguists such as Noam Chomsky .

Sapir was a professor at the University of Chicago and, later, at Yale University (1931-1939). Among his students are Li Fang-kuei , Benjamin Whorf , Mary Haas and Harry Hoijer ; He exerted influence at the Chicago School of Sociology, was a friend of psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan , and considered the semitologist Zellig Harris his intellectual heir. 2

Amerindian language scholar, he was one of the first to investigate the relationship between language and anthropology. In 1921 he stated that language determines thinking, so that each language has a way of thinking. Sapir’s idea was adopted and developed during the 1940s by Benjamin Whorf, and eventually became the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis .

Sapir said that language is a method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires through symbols produced voluntarily and not instinctively, so that language is the result of a merely cultural and social process.

He died on February 4, 1939, of a heart condition.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that there is a certain relationship between the grammatical categories of language that a person speaks and the way in which the person understands and conceptualizes the world. This hypothesis is also known as PRL (Principle – or hypothesis – of Linguistic Relativity). The first linguist to mention this concept was Harry Hoijer . one
We can distinguish a strong and a weaker formulation as follows:
  • Strong Whorphian Hypothesis : The language of a monolingual speaker completely determines the way in which he conceptualizes, memorizes and classifies the “reality” that surrounds him (this occurs at a fundamentally semantic level, although it also influences the way of assuming transformation processes and the states of things expressed by verbal actions). In other words, the language strongly determines the thinking of the speaker.
  • Weak Whorphian Hypothesis : The language of a speaker has some influence on the way he conceptualizes and memorizes “reality,” primarily at the semantic level. This would mean that all other things can be statistically significant differences in the way that two speakers of different languages ​​solve or approach certain problems.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been one of the main topics in the discussions around linguistic relativism .


Concept history

The original hypothesis was formulated by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf , being the latter, a disciple of the first, who would take the theories of his teacher to develop them throughout the 1940s. In his strong version the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be considered a form of linguistic determinism , although psychologists’ interest in the influence of language on thought precedes the formulation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as such. Julia Penn , in her book Linguistic Relativity versus Innate Ideas. The Origins of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in German Thought , traces the theoretical foundations of this hypothesis to the work of the Pietist thinkerGerman Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788), then developing an evolutionary line for this interpretive stream of language that would include Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) and Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845–1929 ), while Franz Boas (1858–1942) and Edward Sapir (1884–1935) would depart on a different branch of the current evolutionary tree. In Penn’s scheme, Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941) would take elements from these thinkers, especially from Sapir , to elaborate the hypothesis discussed in this article.
A highly revised hypothesis of the “weak” version of the Whorfian hypothesis is known as the Whorf-Korzybski hypothesis . Julia Penn considers this hypothesis highly probable and defines it as follows:

The way in which individuals denominate or describe situations influences the way they behave in those situations.

Sapir-Whorf-Korbzybski hypothesis 

Penn relies, to contemplate this hypothesis as possible, on the experiments conducted by John B. Carrol and Joseph H. Casagrande with Hopi and Navajo speakers . However, according to Xabier Zabaltza , in his book A History of Languages ​​and Nationalisms , it should be noted that this hypothesis refers to individual speech (which in terms of Saussure would be called parole ) and not to the language itself ( langue), which is a social activity. Zabaltza highlights the difference between the two concepts in the French language, noting that in German there is no difference between them, since the two share the same name: sprache .
The position that the structure and categories of the mother tongue itself conditions thinking was convincingly argued by Bhartrihari ( 6th century  AD) and was the subject of centuries of debate in the linguistic tradition of India . Related notions in the West, such as the principle that language has control effects on thinking can be identified in the essay by Wilhelm von Humboldt Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium ( On the comparative study of languages ), and the notion has been assimilated Important way in Western thought. Karl Kerenyi  began his translation of Dionysus to English in 1976 with this passage:

The interdependence of thought and speech makes it clear that languages ​​are not so much a means of expressing a truth that has already been established but a means of discovering a previously unknown truth. Its diversity is a diversity not of sounds and signs but of ways of seeing the world.

The origin of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis as a more rigorous analysis of this family cultural perception can be traced back to the work of Franz Boas , the founder of anthropology in the United States. Boas was educated in Germany at the end of the 19th century during the time when scientists like Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann were trying to understand the physiology of sensation.
An important approach of the time was the reborn interest in the work of Immanuel Kant . He said that knowledge was the result of concrete cognitive work on the part of the individual; reality (“sensitive intuition”) was in constant flux and the understanding came from interpreting that intuition through the “categories of understanding.” Different individuals can then perceive the noumenal reality as phenomenal instances of their different individual concepts.
In the US In the USA, Boas found Native American languages from different linguistic families , all different from the Semitic and Indo-European languages studied by the vast majority of European academics. Boas realized how big the differences between grammatical categories and ways of life can be from one place to another. As a result, Boas concluded that the culture and ways of life of a people were reflected in the language spoken by it.

Edward Sapir was one of Boas’ most notable students, and he deepened his argument noting that languages ​​were formally and systematically complete systems. So it was not that any particular word expressed a way of thinking or behaving, but that the systematic and coherent nature of language interacted on a broader level with thought and behavior. Although his ideas changed over time, it seemed that towards the end of his life Sapir came to believe that language was not a mere reflection of culture, but that language and thought could in fact have a relationship of mutual influence and even determination.

Whorf gave this idea even more precision by examining the particular grammatical mechanisms by which thought influenced language.

Sapir said:

When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks along with the Macedonian crap; Confucius, with Assam’s wild headhunters. In Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech . (1921: chapter X)

This expression, which in the background expresses a prejudice, indicates that the way of speaking of the Macedonian squirts was not inferior to the way of speaking of Plato, and that Confucius did not have a syntactic capacity superior to that of Assam’s headhunters . Criticism of this hypothesis will be structured on the argument that the linguistic form of all human beings is equivalent.

Empirical evidence

There are facts that seem difficult to explain if we accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its strong version. Thus, for example, it has been found that babies, chimpanzees and even pigeons are able to categorize and group categories of objects into concepts, despite lacking language. 2

However, the question seems different when we consider the weak hypothesis. It has long been known that memory and psychological perception are affected or influenced by the availability of words and appropriate expressions, for example, color nouns.

Certain experiments have shown that people’s visual memories tend to distort over time, so that visual memories end up increasingly resembling the linguistic categories commonly used by those people.

It was shown, for example, that monolingual speakers of Zuñi , an Amerindian language spoken in New Mexico whose vocabulary does not differentiate between “orange” and “yellow,” experienced greater difficulty than the Zuñi who also knew English or those who only spoke English at when recognizing after a certain time objects of an easily codifiable and expressible color in English, but not in the Zuñi or Zuni language.
In the experiment, an individual was shown a yellow or orange object; after a certain time he was shown two equal objects, one yellow and one orange, among which was the one the subject had previously seen, and was asked to identify the one that had been shown the other time. It has also been shown that it is not that the Zuñi speakers were unable to perceive the difference between a yellow and an orange object, if they were asked to compare them when they were present, but a memory effect after a while. Remember the hue. [confusing summary.]
These experiments seem to partially confirm the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but they do not provide enough evidence in favor of its strong formulation. It seems reasonable to accept that the language one speaks influences memory and the way in which some things are encoded in it, as has been said, but it is doubtful that language is actually the one that provides all the thought patterns of individual (certain experiments show the existence of nonverbal thinking). citation needed ]
Several recent experiments seem to confirm the plausibility of a weak version of linguistic relativity. This is the case of, for example, John Lucy , who has conducted comparative studies with native speakers of English and Yucatecan Maya , in which he showed that those who had English as their mother tongue tended to select objects by their shape , while that Yucatecan speakers used to prefer the material What were they made of? Thus, for example, if they were asked to choose an object similar to a cardboard box, English speakers would select boxes, even if they were plastic, while those from Yucatecan chose cardboard objects even if they were not shaped like a box. Lucy attributed this difference in the conceptualization of objects to the presence, in Yucatecan, of some classifiers who must accompany the noun whenever it is presented behind a numeral ; These classifiers are the ones that linguistically indicate the shape of the objects, so for Yucatecan speakers the most important aspect of nouns would not be the form, but rather the matter.
Dan Slobin has also carried out several experiments in which he studies the effects of grammar when conceptualizing; specifically, he defended that two different languages ​​can give rise to two immeasurable narratives of the same event. His study dealt with the way in which native speakers of English, Turkish and Spanish , divided by age ranges, narrated the same sequence of images. According to their conclusions, there was a correlation between the spoken language and those aspects of the scene that the participants narrated; thus, for example, native Spanish speakers tended to stand out more time In which the action took place, English speakers used to highlight in which spatial direction what was happening was oriented, while Turkish speakers highlighted which protagonists of the scene had contemplated what was happening. In conclusion, Slobin has postulated the existence of a series of mental categories that are acquired through language and used only for linguistic expression; it would be, then, a version of linguistic relativity limited to purely linguistic contexts.


Alfred Bloom has also worked on the subject of various narratives, working on Mandarin Chinese . Bloom conducted an experiment where he showed native English speakers a text containing subjunctive constructions, while showing native speakers of Chinese a literal translation of it into their language, in which this grammatical construction is non-existent. The result was that, when the participants were asked if the events narrated in the text had happened or not, Chinese speakers failed much more than those in English; The conclusion was, therefore, that it is impossible to translate literally from one language to another, and this must be because each of them conceptualizes reality in a different way.
Lera Boroditsky has also worked in comparative studies between English and Mandarin Chinese, and has shown that the speakers of each of these conceive of time in a different way: while English associates the course of time with a horizontal movement , the Chinese associates it with a vertical one. However, this author has also defended the possibility that speakers of one language learn to conceptualize in the same way as those of the other without needing to learn the other language, so she advocates a weak – not deterministic – version of relativity linguistics.


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