“Slaying, yet again, the idea that the languages we speak shape the thoughts we think.”

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that language shapes the way we think. It’s an obsolete linguistic theory, but it’s going strong in other disciplines and in pop culture:

Perhaps the most famous invocation of Sapir-Whorf is the claim that because Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, they have a mental apparatus that equips them differently—and, one assumes, better—than, say, Arabs, to perceive snow. (I once watched the wintry film Fargo with an Egyptian who called everything from snowflakes to windshield-ice talg—the same word she used for the ice cube in her drink.) To get a hint of why nearly all modern linguists might reject this claim, consider the panoply of snow-words in English (sleet, slush, flurry, whiteout, drift, etc.), and the commonsense question of why we would ever think to attribute Eskimos’ sophisticated and nuanced understanding of snow to their language, rather than the other way around. (“Can you think of any other reason why Eskimos might pay attention to snow?” Harvard’s Steven Pinker once asked.)

A Dozen Words for Misunderstood: Language and Thoughts

8 thoughts on ““Slaying, yet again, the idea that the languages we speak shape the thoughts we think.”

  1. Mitch Wagner Post author

    Michael A. Armstrong: In Inupiaq, the language of the northern Alaska Eskimo, it’s not so much that the Inupiat have so many words for snow (or ice, also important), but that their language allows them to create word easily. Inupiaq builds words by adding sounds to bases. It’s important to distinguish the many different kinds of ice and snow, and so they developed a simple means of doing so. It also works for other things. The sound “puk” means “big.” “Siksik” is the word for the ground squirrel, and “siksikpuk” is the word for the marmot. There’s an article on this somewhere I read; I’ll look it up.via facebook.com


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