Strong and weak versions of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
The theory of linguistic relativity is known in two versions: the strong hypothesis (= linguistic determinism) and the weak hypothesis (= linguistic relativity). It is necessary to clarify that the words “strong” and “weak” are not related to the strength of the scholarly argumentation, but rather to the degree to which language is assumed to influence our thought and behaviour. According to the strong version, the language we speak determines/constraints the way we think and view the real world. According to the weak version, the language does influence to some extent the way we think and view the real world, however, does not fully determine or constraint it.
The ability of people to learn and to speak multiple languages casts doubt on the strong version of the theory, since a person may learn many different languages, but this does not change the way he/she thinks. Therefore, the strong version of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is refuted by the greater majority of linguists and anthropologists.
Although criticized by formalists (e.g. Berlin & Kay, 1969) who argue that all languages share the same structure (hence, all people view the world identically, according to formalists), the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis still continues to interest scholars across many fields and disciplines including linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Some scholars devised experiments in order to acquire empirical (i.e. based on an experiment) evidence concerning the hypothesis.
One of such experiments was devised and conducted by Kay and Kempton (1984). The scholars invited two groups of monolingual participants: 1) English speakers and 2) Tarahumara (a Uto-Aztecan language of northern Mexico) speakers. Unlike English, Tarahumara does not have separate words to differentiate between “green” and “blue” – Tarahumara has one word “siyóname” which means “green or blue”.
Both groups of participants were presented with several chips of different colours: a) green, b) light blue, and c) dark blue. The results of the experiment showed that in 29/30 cases, the English-speaking participants sorted the chips based on their colour (relying, thus, on the categories established in their language). The Tarahumara speakers, in turn, who do not have such categories in their language demonstrated almost perfect 50%/50% split in choosing an odd chip. These results affirm the theory of linguistic relativity since language has been shown to influence the participants’ behaviour.
It is worth mentioning that neither Sapir nor Whorf suggested the distinction between the strong and weak versions of the theory of linguistic relativity. Both Sapir and Whorf were critical of any endeavours to overemphasize the role of language in thought or non-linguistic behaviour characteristic of the strong version of the hypothesis.
In sum, this post has briefly addressed the distinction between the weak and strong versions of the theory of linguistic relativity. An experiment has been discussed in this relation which confirms the weak version of the hypothesis suggesting that the language/s we speak may contribute to the way we behave, however, does not determine it as Sapir and Whorf have pointed out.
Berlin, B., & Kay, P. (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kay, P., and Kempton, W. (1984). What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? American Anthropologist, 86, 65-78.