Intro to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Hey guys, Polymath University has yet another exuberating video for you. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is something very fascinating indeed. We all know that there are thousands of languages right. Some are very complex, some are more simple. And, they also vary with respect to their vocabularies. Now, does the type of language we have fundamentally structure the way we think? Let’s say that you have a word in one language that is not translatable in any other language. Are these languages then completely limited in having thoughts that involve that word?


The point of this hypothesis is that language somehow structures your thought and influences the way you perceive reality. So if you are German, Dutch, American, Eskimo or a Native America, the language you speak can have an effect on the way you think about the world.

As an example: it was argued in the past that Eskimo languages such as Inuit have dozens of words for snow. For example, they would have a special word for wet snow, or snow that is falling, or snow that has a certain thickness or density, or color, and so on. While we only have the word snow, and use adjectives to further describe what kind of snow we mean, such as wet snow.

This would supposedly give the Eskimos a special ability to understand snow better than we do. Of course, they need to survive in the snow, so knowing their environment as precisely as possible is crucial to their survival. So according to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, their vocabulary would shape their worldview in a way, that they can survive better in the snow than we do. However, there was a problem with this exact case study being evidence for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity. It turns out that these Eskimo words for snow are not really words. They are more like root words that are extended with suffixes. See the video for a detailed explanation on what this exactly means.

Even though we haven’t found any irrefutable proof of this hypothesis, we ended up with these two versions of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis:

Strong version: language determines thought.

Weak version: language only influences thought.

The strong version is not really believed by many people today. It also sounds a bit too much. However, the weak version has more to it. It makes sense that the type of language we speak influences what we do. Nonetheless, this Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is really fascinating to think about. Who knows in what ways our language and also our culture influences the way we think.

Further Reading

Check out this post on the importance of communication.

Also interesting:


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *