Whorf | The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language

Literature Review // Whorf, Benjamin Lee. (1941) “The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language.” Language, culture, and personality: Essays in memory of Edward Sapir. 75-93. Rpt. in Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956). Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press. 134-159.

Read in Language & Culture

While now considered a more dated linguistic theory, it was important to read Whorf as a background since so many following linguists confront his theories. He is most famous for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism (strong) or linguistic relatively (weak).

Linguistic determinism: Language determines our worldview and perception and therefore language limits our thoughts.

Linguistic relativity: Language influences our worldview, perceptions, and tendencies.


In this paper, Whorf mainly described the differences in SAE (standard average European) and the Hopi tribe to show how their language influenced the way they thought about the world. Some examples include:

  • Hopi tend to see time as a gradient while SAE tends to see time as an object. This allows us to refer to it, count it, and ‘matter’ it.
  • SAE was more likely to see objects as containers.
  • SAE used metaphors while the Hopi did not.
  • Hopi don’t use tense, instead used validity. Something either did or didn’t happen, unlike things in the future and past.
  • Hopi had a greater believe in human agency and that thoughts could create (or are) action.
Thoughts? Discussion? I'd love to hear 'em!

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