Culture is an essential part of the language that one acquires. The culture of an individual refers to the values, beliefs and norms of the society they are affiliated. A person’s culture is like a lens in which we experience the world around them and develop shared meanings as per the cultures that one belongs to. There is, therefore, an apparent relationship between how a person speaks and how they perceive the world around. However, there has been a reigning question on how the language spoken by an individual influence and affects their culture. It is in the quest to answer the question that an anthropologist and linguistic named Edward Sapir together with his student name Benjamin Whorf created the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Sapir first discussed the theory in 1929 but became famous in the 1950s following the publications made by Whorf writing on the subject (Earl & Agnoli, 1991). The theory states that their thought processes largely determine the way a person looks at the world, and hence the language limits an individual's thought processes. The hypothesis asserts that the language of individual shapes their reality. It is a theory that faced abject controversy with the followers of Noam Chomsky strongly attacking it but was later accepted by a majority of the linguistics only in the notion that language has a small effect on thought and not in its entirety. It was the main break thorough in the analysis and discussion of the relationship between the mind and the language of an individual. It is because, it states that the language of individual shapes their perceptions and cognitions thus asserts an influence on their mind. According to the hypothesis, the mental world of one area is different from the mental world of another area (Earl & Agnoli, 1991). The hypothesis was crucial at identifying the aspects affecting the language area of spatial reasoning and the spatial areas affecting the reasoning of other thoughts. Therefore, language differences cause differences in the mind of the language users.
The hypothesis asserts that language can constrain our thoughts and beliefs. It is true in the sense that the wordings we use can determine the first image we get in our minds. There is mental picture that pops out because of using the particular language. It is an analogy that has been used historically even to control people and what they perceive as a result of the words they hear. It is because, changing the meaning of a word in a language can distort the mental image and the ideas that they will carry. It is an idea used in some instances and proven to work to pass political ideologies influencing the people to think as the leaders so wish. For example, the word ‘negro’ means black in both Spanish and Portuguese languages (Dedre & Goldin-Meadow, 2003). However, during the slave trade and times of slavery the white people in the United States began using the word about the slaves and as a word that was demeaning to the people of color. It changed the perception of the previously non-abusive word that just meant a person of African heritage and made it a term used to pass the slavery agenda or rather to repress the African Americans. Today the word is taken as being racist. Therefore, the language constrained the language and meaning of the word to form other beliefs and thoughts. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also indicated that there is linguistic relativism in that the differences in language will lead to a difference in thinking of an idea correctly (Dedre & Goldin-Meadow, 2003). It asserts that the language used can distort the interpretation of a similar idea. The hypothesis, however, made an error in stating that language has an absolute control or determination of the thoughts since there are instances that a deviation in language does not automatically lead to a change in the beliefs and cognitions of an individual. Therefore, language determinism is only applicable to a small extent and not entirely.
Language determinism refers to the concept that what is said has an effect only on the concepts that are recognized by the mind (Harley, 2010). There can be strong and weak determinism. Strong determinism refers to the strict view that what is said is directly responsible for what is perceived by the mind. However, the weak determinism recognizes that there is some effect on the perception of a person’s language, but it is not as clear as it is in the strong determinism. In weak determinism, the view of an individual is not determined by their language but in strong determinism the perception is strictly defined by the language. Gender marking is the determination of the meaning of a word or phrase based on its representation as to whether it is masculine or feminine. In as much as there is a substantial reduction of gendered words in the language, there is a need to realize that there are some words that are sexist and may lead to wrong interpretations. The perception of a person is influenced b y their gender marking of the words they hear or speak (Harley, 2010). The gender marking is also affected by the cultural background of the individual based on what they perceive as masculine or feminine. For example by using the word “chairman” some individuals will automatically get a mental picture of a man in a suit whereas others will interpret it as a person without necessarily attaching any gender on them. It is because, the gender marking allows the person to realize that the ‘chairman’ could mean a man or a woman and hence the need to ascertain before making a judgment. The gender markers are strongly influenced by the beliefs and the cognitions held by an individual that may lead to wrong interpretation of the language and hence the need to avoid the gendered language (Dedre & Goldin-Meadow, 2003).
Researchers are still looking into the question of the relationship, between language, thought, and culture. The ideas put across by Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are receiving widespread support and opposition with more and more extensions and support of the theory forthcoming in the quest to have validation or refutation of the hypothesis. The theory asserts that language affects thoughts in that a person’s perception is based on their language (Littlejohn, 2002). However, there are other researchers indicating that thoughts affect language. In support of this analogy, Piaget states that in cognitive psychology, the child can acquire language to the extent of their cognitive development and not the other way round. The more moderate theorists suggest that language and the mind affect each other. It is a theory by Vigotsky Benjamin combining Piaget’s cognitive psychology and Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Littlejohn, 2002). It recognizes the role that the mind has to play to language acquisition while at the same time considering the language determinism by the Sapir-Whorf theory. It is the most preferred approach by cognitive psychologists although researchers are still enquiring on the validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis emphasizes that the language of an individual determine the mental picture they get regarding an issue. The theory also recognizes the possibility of language relativism whereby the different languages that exist account for the differences in the cognitive processes of individuals. Individuals from different languages, therefore, understand words in various ways (Harley, 2010). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that language can be extended to mean something different and subsequently change the perception of an individual or rather shape their way of thinking and beliefs held. The hypothesis plays a crucial role in answering the question of the relationship between culture, language and the cognitions of an individual. It, however, faces criticism and support from different researchers with others ascribing to the idea that unlike the hypothesis insinuating that language affects the mind, the mind affects language while others claim that language and the mind affects one another.