Spirits of Sapir-Whorf

I’ve been thinking, in English, about how thinking in English affects my ability to comprehend concepts, ideas, and stories that have been translated from hunter-gatherer languages into English. I can’t help but think that hunting languages must differ in significant ways from farming languages. The former have been shaped by (and responsive to) a fundamentally different set of needs, experiences, challenges, and environments than those which confront people living in large-scale agricultural or industrial societies. I can’t also help but think that when we translate hunting languages into farming languages, we lose something (often a great deal) and the concepts are not quite the same.

What we today call “religion” is a perfect example of this. Hunter-gatherers didn’t and don’t have words or concepts for “religion” and efforts to find religion in animist worldviews are misleading. This enterprise is of course evolutionist and implicitly progressive. Those who concede that hunter-gatherers didn’t have “religion” are usually quick to observe that they did have a precursor or “proto-religion” that is usually glossed as “animism.” This too is misleading. What Edward Tylor described, at great length and with considerable acumen, as “animism” in Primitive Culture (1871), suffered from all sorts of translational difficulties. He assumed that animists had words, ideas, and concepts that corresponded to or were identical with a long list of words, ideas, and concepts familiar to those of us who speak farming languages. It’s highly doubtful that the two groups shared similar ideas about what Tylor and others translated and talked about as “souls, spirits, and gods.” Even more problematic is the imposition of distinctly western constructs such as the “sacred” onto the animist worldview.

Anthropologists have of course long been aware of these issues. After his intensive study of North American indigenous (i.e., hunting) languages, Edward Sapir realized that there was a sense in which Natives were living in a different world shaped by language:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection.

The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.

We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir 1958 [1929]:69).

Some years later, Sapir’s brilliant student Benjamin Whorf stated the idea in even stronger form:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.

We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.

The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. (Whorf 1940:213-14).

In The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World (2000:19091), the anthropologist Hugh Brody (who has spent many years with Canadian Inuit and Athapascans), explains what happens when we attempt to translate from English (a farming language) into a hunting language:

It is difficult to convey the meanings of the English words vermin, fence, advocacy, hierarchy, or bequeath in Inuit, or in Athabascan, Algonquian, or San. There are also problems with the language of private property. Inuit has a way of speaking of ownership, with a root signifying that a place or thing is for the use of someone. But there is no verb form equivalent to the English I own, you own, he owns.

Equally noticeable is the absence of more than basic numerical language from almost all hunter-gatherer vocabularies and grammar. Inuit counts to five and has words for ten and twenty. But there is no continuous sequence of number words, and no linguistic system for multiplying and dividing. In the San languages of the Kalahari, this lack of words for counting is even more striking: some have the numbers one, two and three, whereas others have only one and two.

A switch from one Indo-European [farming] language can mean some loss of vocabulary and a related change in conceptual possibilities. But such examples are few and can often be dealt with by taking words from one language into another – as has been the case with the French tête-à-tête and the German Schadenfreude. When it comes to a change from a hunter-gatherer language to an agricultural language, the problems of vocabulary and conceptual translation are immense.

If this is the case with even simple words and concepts, we can imagine how much bigger the problem is when we are dealing with everything encompassed by the animist worldview: cosmologies, ontologies, epistemologies, and metaphysics. I suspect that our understandings and assessments of what traditionally has been called “animism” is, as an ironic consequence, primitive.

Addendum: In this interview with Sam Garrett, an accomplished translator of Dutch-English, we get a much stronger statement of Sapir-Whorff:

Interviewer: So a translation is a search for meaning?

Garrett: A translation is not just turning one language into another. It’s also about opening up a foreign mindset. Our culture is hardwired into us through language. 

CC: How is culture hardwired into us? Was there a moment when you realized that your language shaped your outlook?

SG: When I first moved to Amsterdam, I’d had the usual brushes with foreign languages in school, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in Dutch culture that I came to understand how much the story behind the words mattered.

A good translator has to be not only something of a virtuoso in his or her mother tongue, but also a fluent, knowledgeable, and interested sponge when it comes to the idiom and cultural setting of the language he or she is translating from. If you haven’t absorbed damned near everything, if you’re not fascinated by the picayune details of your second language, you probably shouldn’t be translating.

While hugely insightful, this is also a bit discouraging for those of us who want to cross cultural borders, and seek to understand through translations. I think it also sheds some light on cultural anthropologists who learn the basics of a language, do a year or two of fieldwork, and then write ethnographies. I can’t help but wonder what gets lost in translation.


Sapir, E. (1929). “The Status of Linguistics as a Science,” in E. Sapir (1958): Culture, Language and Personality (ed. D. G. Mandelbaum). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Whorf, B. L. (1940). “Science and Linguistics,” Technology Review 42(6): 229-31, 247-48.


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4 thoughts on “Spirits of Sapir-Whorf

  1. jayarava

    I’m quite a fan of Whorf’s writing. It is very stimulating.

    However I’m not sure I agree about religion. I study India in the first millennia BC. There is no word that could be translated as “religion” in the languages of India at the time. Later on “Dharma” came to stand for that concept, but it did not get used that way for a millennia later. Clearly these were mainly farming or herding cultures, though they had animist neighbours – which we know from elements of animist practice incorporated into texts. Trees in particular often have spirits which dwell in them and must be propitiated. As I have to remind Buddhists they had no word corresponding to our word “reality” either!

    Other Whorf like features include the lack of a category of “emotion” in Sanskrit and Middle-Indic languages. There are many words for different emotions, but they are not seen as separate from other kinds of mental activity all of which are grouped under the heading of ‘citta’. It makes this word hard to translate – sometimes we think it means ‘mind’ or ‘thought’, sometimes ‘heart’. It’s very difficult for an English speaker to manage this lack of separation when translating.

  2. franscouwenberghFrans Couwenbergh

    Dear Cris,
    You are the first I met who read ‘The Other Side Of Eden’. You are my younger brother from now. Your older brother deducted in 2001 (when I read Brody) the conclusion to divide humanity historically in GHs (Gatherer/Hunters) and AGRs (food growers). 95% of the time our species is named ‘homo’, it were GHs. What made AMHs (Anatomic Modern Humans) on some places on Earth into AGRs? Overpopulation. [The cause of this dramatic success of AMHs compared to their ancestors the Early Humans, we may discuss later.] Overpopulation makes males into warriors and females into food growers (they cannot maintain their nomadic lifestyle any longer and must handle the plants in their territory with even more caution and ingenuity).
    People think conform their prevailing economy, so their world-view changed: they became AGRs. We are all AGRs now, with some exceptions such as the Pygmies, the Bushmen and the Aboriginals.
    Now your point: religion.
    As long as you don’t distinguish ‘religion’= god-belief from ‘religiously experiencing of the world’, you will never get the point clearly, just as the theologians and other philosophers never will. This distinction is as sharp as that between GH’s and AGRs. 95% of the time our species liver as GHs, they were experiencing their world religiously. But just as they didn’t know chiefs or kings, they didn’t know gods. What they knew was The Big Ancestor, The Creating Figure of their world, whose creative acts they sung/danced around the camp-fire every night. For understanding what I argue I need to tell you how I see what made our earliest ancestors, ape-men on the Miocene African savannah into our species: the achievement of ‘names for the things’. No other species has this. All group animals have their specific means of communication, but only our species can communicate about something that is not awarable in the environment: about something on a far place or in another season. Our earliest ancestors, a two-legged kind of bonobos, could: with gestured imitations of things: ‘names for the things’, gestured ‘words’. Let us name them ANBOS (Ancestor Bonobos).
    Ever more ‘names’ for even more ‘things’, that becomes a chaos in your head unless you create a story (of how things began and developed, inclusive people, into what is is now) that brings the tsunami of ‘names’ in coherence.
    Disposing of ‘names for the things’ does something with an animal
    a) it creates a feeling of distance between the ‘namer’ and ‘the named thing’ : between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ – the Anbos could ‘objectivate’ things
    b) ‘naming’ a thing bestowed them with a feeling of power over the thing
    c) it enabled the Anbos to confer knowledge from generation to generation: knowledge could accumulate
    d) it enabled them to lump each individual ingenuity together; two know more than one, an with a whole group the Anbos could solve big problems
    e) the Anbos could plot, it made them to the ‘hooligans’ of the savannah; especially when their feeling of power over the things enabled them to start using the fire instead of to keep running for it like all other animals.

    Aarch! My reply is getting too long. and it is bed time for big Brodyer. When you are interested, my young Brodyer, I’ll continue this tomorrow, OK? .

  3. Cris Post author

    Frans — that’s such a sprawling comment that I don’t really know where to begin or how to respond. I will caution, however, that when we tell ourselves stories, we are almost inevitably oversimplifying matters and assuming we know more than we do.

    A few factual points will have to suffice for this reply. Hunter-gatherers have always been extremely diverse, which means they think many different things. Many of them don’t pay much attention to ancestors or creators.

    It’s highly doubtful that Miocene apes ever had language abilities and could name things. In fact, most anthropologists seem to think that the ability to symbol, speak, and name things is an ability that evolved about 75,000-60,000 years ago.

    I also think Brody’s book is okay, but it vastly oversimplifies things, and caricatures farming people and farming worldviews. He generalizes in ways that are problematic. Anthropologists have long know there is a fundamental divide between foraging peoples and farming peoples; hence the terms “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic.”

    I encourage you to spend some time perusing the nearly 700 posts in this blog, because many of them address the points or issues in your comment.

    I also don’t think that using the term “religious” to describe animist worldviews is particularly helpful, so I wouldn’t describe the animist way of experiencing the world as “religious.” This gets into definitions of religion and the peculiar western constructions of religion as an analytical category. I don’t think we can simply deploy these concepts back in time and assume they are the same.

  4. Frans Couwenbergh

    OK, I’ll finish my reply of 26 February, because it is unsatisfactory to leave loose ends. But you are right: my comment is too sprawling, too all-inclusive for a simple comment.
    I tried to explain religion as a result of the unnatural path our Anbos entered with enriching their communication with ‘names for the things’: symbols. [ You are absolutely right doubting that Miocene apes ever had language abilities and that is of course not what I claim. But now we, their offspring, are. Our language abilities must have had a beginning and I denote this as a sort of ‘big bang’. From this event on our ANBOS exhibited behaviour that no other animals ever exhibited: using the fire, manufacturing sophisticated stone tools, colonizing areas outside the tropics, and so on. I ascribe their exceptional behaviour to the five effects of having ‘names for the things’, I enumerated already. However … in the course of a few millions of years after the Miocene ‘big bang’ and being Pleistocene Homo habilis and Early Humans. I needed this ‘sprawling’ introduction to explain religion, hoping you and any other readers would take the time to read more details on my website http://www.humanosophy.org]
    Ever more ‘names’ (symbols) for ever more things: This will become an unmanageable chaos in your head unless you bring some ordination or ranking in it, by telling stories of how things began and evolved, inclusive ourselves, into they are now. The creation story. [I am well aware that for you, this is a total new vision is at the beginning of our humanity. The question remains: makes it sense for you or not? And when it is yes: is this the place for discussing this vision or not?. I’m afraid it is no. But nevertheless: I started it and I have to finish it.] [Ever more ‘names’ (symbols, words)? this concerns your blog about grammar! But that’s not for now.]
    You have to realize: our Anbos started as apes, as normal animals. ‘Names for things’ brought them into the situation that in their individual decisions for any action they had to choose between following an instinctive impulse, or to let it be the result of consulting each other. Well, for their precarious survival they had become very social beings (as a result of natural selection on group level) so they had to choose for the last choice and had to suppress their instinctive impulses … at the expense of their ancestral animal instinct certainty!
    Our Anbos became ‘brooding apes’. And we still are. (Idea for a nice best-seller for you, Cris? You have my blessing.)
    One cannot live with uncertainty. So from the beginning our Anbos developed two mechanisms to adjure uncertainty: repetition and believing.
    Repetition: doing things as they always did, or as their ancestors had always done. Tradition. Rituals. Early Humans are notorious conservationists: two millions of years the same design of hand axe. But at ‘religious’ level: singing/dancing the creation story of their (tribal) world. Every night, around the camp fire. The normal end of every day of gathering/hunting (GH)., 95% of the time of humanity our Anbos were GHs. This is the source of our inborn ‘religious experiencing’ of the world. [Dancing/singing? as apes? again a nice other telling!]
    Believing: that things are like we want they are, or that they are like someone with authority say they are. Mostly some blend of both.
    And now the birth of God.
    Armed with the power of the fire our Anbos migrated to cooler and game-richer areas outside the tropics, also into Eurasia. Slowly: when a group became too numerous, a party of young women, children and men decided to move to the new habitat they knew already (young people always made a long voyage on their own, and in case of safe return they could lifelong tell stories about their adventures). Not too far away, perhaps some ten day trips far, because groups needed each other for safe survival.
    The young colonizers came into a habitat wherein they were the first humans to ‘name’ things over there. For linguistic beings things only exist insofar as they have a ‘name’ for it. For their offspring this first colonizing group, drawn into one ‘creating Figure’, became the Big Ancestor of the tribe, whose creating actions they dances, sung every night around the camp fire. No group of Early Humans ever lived (could live, as linguistic beings and primal conservative beings) without his creation story. When they would stop dancing/singing their creation story, their (named) world would no longer exist. Even primitive Modern Humans still live in this idea of the world. Even present day consumers still live in the feeling that ‘there has to be something’.
    This is, in very-very short, my idea of our inborn religious feelings. The monotheist ‘One True God’ whose Name we may have learned to fear in our childhood, is a patriarchal invention of the Late Iron Age, parasitizing on our inborn religious feelings. Again another nice story.
    Now I say goodbye to your nice blogs, Cris.
    When you, or any other reader, is interested, you can always send me a mail: fcouwenb – something- mens2000.nl


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