Does language shape our way of thinking? This simple but at the same time complicated question made Benjamin Lee Whorf study and develop his hypothesis about language: the Whorf hypothesis. He tried to show how effectively language shapes our thought by studying American Indian linguistics and most of his conclusions are based on this.
This hypothesis is divided in two parts: Linguistic determinism (language acquisition shapes ones thought) and linguistic relativity (depending on the language you speak you think in a way or another). These language differences are completely unconscious and make us see the world differently from people that speak another language.
To try and prove his theory, Whorf showed some examples of when language influences thought. Lexically, he proposed differentiation (different languages have more or less words for a specific domain) and explained how Eskimos have lots of different words for snow that the English language does not have, or, how the Hopi have only one word for flying objects. These ideas have been criticised by others telling that these examples are an exaggeration.
Another example to prove his theory was using grammar. For example, the differences between nouns and verbs that the English language has, Hopi language does not have them. They treat words of short duration always as verbs (not verbs or nouns as English does). Whorf affirmed that grammatical distinctions influence heavily on the ways we see the world. He mentions how the English language differences into form and substance making us think of the objects form depending on the category we’ve put them in (something that other languages do not have, and so they visualize those objects in another way).
Other psychologists do not agree with Whorf’s theory as it did not fit with the behaviourist ideas of the time and were in contradiction with Chomsky’s view of the universal language. Furthermore, Whorf provided many arguments but few evidence. In order to test his hypothesis they examined what differences in language means; what differences in thinking means and what is meant by languages determine thought. An experiment that proves the Whorf hypothesis wrong is the colour experiment. Dani culture learned colours in the same way as English speakers when tested. If the hypothesis was right they would not be able to learn colours in the same way (as they only difference between black and white).
Experiments in colour also proved the Whorf theory right when they saw how the words we use for colours (green, blue or blue-green) influence how we refer to them (if the name for blue does not exist when we see a blue object we name it in another way). Another experiment that proves the theory is examining numbers that show that the way numbers are represented influences mathematical thinking and so Chinese and American see maths in different ways. Furthermore, object terms also influence the way of thinking as dependent on the language the use of verbs or nouns is used more widely and that influences the way of expression of the different languages. Finally, the space distinctions between languages make us think of the world in different ways depending on the language we speak.