Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Examples and Definition

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  • 0:02 The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
  • 1:05 Language & Work
  • 2:11 Language & Sexism
  • 3:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that the way we speak and use words can determine how we see the world? Find out how in this lesson about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which also includes some thought-provoking examples. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Culture refers to the values, norms, and beliefs of a society. Our culture can be thought of as a lens through which we experience the world and develop shared meaning. It follows that the language that we use is created in response to cultural needs. In other words, there is an obvious relationship between the way in which we talk and how we perceive the world. One important question that many intellectuals have asked is how the language that our society uses influences its culture.

Anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf were interested in answering this question. Together, they created the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that how we look at the world is largely determined by our thought processes, and our language limits our thought processes. It follows that our language shapes our reality. In other words, the language that we use shapes the way we think and how we see the world. Since the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis theorizes that our language use shapes our perspective of the world, it follows that people who speak different languages have different world views.

Language and Work

Let's use the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to look at a real-life example in the workforce.

John and Mary are two best friends who work at the same hospital. Though John initially wanted to be a doctor, he later changed his mind and decided to be a nurse like Mary. John was often teased about his career choice. He was told that a man should be a doctor, not a nurse by several acquaintances. Though John's friends and relatives never teased him about his job, John noticed that whenever they explained his occupation to others, they referred to him as a 'male nurse.' However, whenever he heard others speak about Mary's occupation, they called her a 'nurse.'

John wondered why he and Mary's positions were referred to by two different titles when they both performed the exact same job. He also wondered if the language that others were using to refer to his occupation was at all related to our culture's sexist view that men cannot be nurses.

By referring to John as a 'male nurse' and his friend Mary as just a 'nurse,' their acquaintances were using language shaped by societal views that being a nurse is a woman's profession, and men should not be nurses.

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