Do different languages lead to different perceptions of reality (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis)? Or do we think the same way in any language (Chomsky)? What do you think?


In our last TOK seminar, we discussed one of the ways of knowing: Language. We were then asked a question based off of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Chomsky’s linguistic theory. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, created by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, suggests that our understanding of the world depends to a large extent on the language with which we use to interact with it, in other words, different languages lead to different perceptions of reality, leading cultures to behave distinctly according to what words and phrases they use to label the world. Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, proposes that whatever tongue we speak in, we still perceive of the world in the same way, therefore innate abilities in language learning mean that language is universal.

 Edward Sapir (1884-1939)

ed sapir

An American anthropologist-linguist, who is widely-considered to be one of the most important figures in the early development of the discipline of linguistics.

“The psychology of a language which, in one way or another, is imposed upon one because of factors beyond one’s control, is very different from the psychology of a language which one accepts of one’s free will.”

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941)


An American linguist known as an advocate for the idea that because of linguistic differences in grammar and usage, speakers of different languages conceptualize and experience the world differently.

“Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.”

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

I highly encourage you to watch this short video titled “Does language shape how we think? Linguistic relativity & linguistic determinism.” as it touches on all points of this hypothesis and visually aids one to understand it.

Noam Chomsky (1928 – )

Chomsky is a linguist, philosopher, and, in his role as political activist. Chomsky’s theories on the extent to which language is innate to humans, and his ‘universal grammar’ theory is incomparable to anyone else.

 “Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world”

In this video, Chomsky discusses the major debates in linguistics:

 Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 10.44.52 PMI further recommend to read this interview—-.htm to delve into the “Psychology of Language and Thought” Chomsky analyses to become more informed.

When first asked the question whether different languages lead to different perceptions of reality or do we think the same way in any languagemy first instinct to answer this question seemed quite obvious to me, I believed that we think the same no matter what language we are thinking or speaking in. The perception and views of the world would remain constant despite there being different languages. This means that I concord with Chomsky’s views…originally.

Then, upon reflecting on my personal experience I came to realise, this is not necessarily the case. Me, being a tri-lingual person, I feel quite identified with these theories and  hypothesis. Basic ideas, principles and morals do not (shouldn’t) change, we are still the same person in escense, no matter what language we are identified with. What I feel is the concept that differs, is how we express and react to what we think. This is due to the link with culture and historical background of the individual.

In my opinion, culture can define how and what we think. An aboriginal from the Amazons who has been surrounded by nature and tribal culture her/his whole life and speaks only their native dialect, will not think the same way as a European living in Western Culture who speaks multiple languages. Different cultures have a barrier on how the people have a view of life which is expressed through their language.

For example, different words for different colours leads us to form different perceptions of the world. This alters the way different people view the same object, depending on their native language. Also, many words and phrases are native to one language and can’t be translated to many others, so expressing thoughts or ideas will change depending on the language being used. This theory is most effective when one compares the languages of cultures that are very far removed, rather than just comparing the subtle differences between Spanish and Portuguese.

One that has been studied deeply, is the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon. They use three different words for numbers, that translate asapproximately one“, “a little more than one“, and “a lot more than one“. Since their whole perception of groups of objects is based on this, they have serious difficulties counting and distinguishing between patterns of objects once their numbers rise beyond about eight.

This is different from languages such as english, spanish, french, etc. because calculating and numbers are very perspective, making their perception on quantity a lot more precise. An example such as this one proves how different languages prove a different perception of reality.

Nevertheless, this examples shows how a person who only speaks one language has a perception of reality, making their reality different from another group of people. While I believe if the Pirahã people knew English then they would have a more accurate perception of numbers, therefore not necessarily altering their own perception of reality, but making it more precise.

Currently, many linguists accept that there is some difference of perception depending on the language that we use. Certainly there are many untranslatable terms that are key concepts to certain languages and cultures :

Culinary terms are in French

Musical directions are in Italian

Both the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Chomsky’s studies can be considered correct. This is because people can only speak from their personal experience and whether they know one or more languages. One person might struggle identifying themselves with a language and finding sense in it, while another can switch back and forth without altering their perception of reality as they are in touch with many cultures and do not feel closely affiliated with any particular one.


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