Discuss the concept of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Relate it with the Use of Nigeria Situation

Discuss the concept of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Relate it with the Use of Nigeria Situation
Discuss the concept of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Relate it with the Use of Nigeria Situation

Discuss the concept of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Relate it with the Use of Nigeria Situation


Language, as it is generally known (Aliyu 1999, Obot 2002), performs several functions. It allows the individual to a full membership of his community and equips him with the power of self-expression, which makes him a complete human being, since its absence, even in part, renders the individual incomplete. It also provides a medium for inter-personal communication for the different members of the society. But beyond all these functions, language acts as a vehicle whereby the culture of the society finds verbal expression.

Language is more than just a means of communication.   It influences our culture and even our thought processes.   During the first four decades of the 20th century, language was viewed by American linguists and anthropologists as being more important than it actually is in shaping our perception of reality.  This was mostly due to Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf who said that language predetermines what we see in the world around us.  In other words, language acts like a polarizing lens on a camera in filtering reality–we see the real world only in the categories of our language.

Cross cultural comparisons of such things as color terms were used by Sapir and Whorf as evidence of this hypothesis.  When we perceive color with our eyes, we are sensing that portion of electromagnetic radiation that is visible light.  In fact, the spectrum of visible light is a continuum of light waves with frequencies that increase at a continuous rate from one end to the other.  In other words, there are no distinct colors like red and green in nature.  Our culture, through language, guides us in seeing the spectrum in terms of the arbitrarily established categories that we call colors.  Different cultures may divide up the spectrum in different ways.

Discuss the concept of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Relate it with the Use of Nigeria Situation


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that language plays a powerful role in shaping human consciousness, affecting everything from private thought and perception to larger patterns of behavior in society—ultimately allowing members of any given speech community to arrive at a shared sense of social reality.

Sapir and Whorf interpreted these data as indicating that colors are not objective, naturally determined segments of reality.  In other words, the colors we see are predetermined by what our culture prepares us to see.  This example used to support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was objectively tested in the 1960’s.  That research indicated that they went too far.  All normal humans share similar sense perceptions of color despite differences in color terminology from one language to another.  The physiology of our eyes is essentially the same.  People all over the world can see subtle gradations of color and can comprehend other ways of dividing up the spectrum of visible light.  However, as a society’s economy and technology increase in complexity, the number of color terms usually also increases.  That is to say, the spectrum of visible light gets subdivided into more categories.  As the environment changes, culture and language typically respond by creating new terminology to describe it.


The concept of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis 

A reasonable summary of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its tractable form is that different cultures interpret the same world differently and this has an impact on how they both think and construct meaning in language; in fact, language shapes or influences thought to some degree.  The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis combines linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism.  Adherents of the hypothesis follow these two principles to varying degrees producing gradient interpretations from weak to strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.  Cognitive linguists are among the only linguists to take this “mentalist” position seriously, and most linguists of any orientation reject a strong version of the hypothesis.  The linguistic determinism portion of the original hypothesis stated that language determined thought, and this is the rejected strong version.  The linguistic relativity portion asserts that because language determines thought and there are different languages then the ways that those languages think will be different to some degree.

Part of the controversy surrounding the hypothesis is the lack of empirical data, or at least appropriate empirical data.  This has caused a number of researchers to begin considering how the ideas of linguistic determinism may affect judgment. For instance, in 2008 Daniel Casasanto performed a series of experiments with time, quantity and distance to determine whether or not speakers of Greek and speakers of English would have their judgments affected by the type of metaphors preferred by the language.  The language did affect judgment to some degree, but it is not a causal claim about the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis.  Other empirical research has looked at linguistic relativity as a shaper of thought as opposed to a determiner of thought.

This hypothesis is important to linguistics because it acknowledges the relationship between thought and language, which may partially give stability to the cognitive claim that language use reflects conceptualization and that different conceptualizations are reflected in different linguistic organizations.  This reminds me of a situation I once participated in where a rhetorical question was being translated from one language to another but the source language structure of the rhetorical question would have implied the exact opposite meaning in the target language had it been translated literally rather than in a manner that acknowledged the target language’s normal pattern of organization for rhetorical questions.  Although this may be a simplified understanding of the importance of Sapir-Whorf, it at least seems to have vital implications in translation theory.

The Relation between Sapir Whorf Hypothesis with the Nigerian Situation

The central idea (theme) of Sapir Whorf hypothesis is that language shapes thought, hence people speaking different languages are held to be living in different worlds of reality because, according to Sapir and Whorf, the language of each speaker powerfully conditions the speaker’s mode of thought, perception, and social reality (Sapir, 1929:120). Thus in Sapir’s own words (quoted from Elugbe, 1999:103): “Formation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language…”


The above quotation suggests clearly that man’s entire appreciation of the world around him (i.e. his life style, as well as his judgment and evaluation of life generally), are grossly controlled and dictated by his language, i.e. his language of thought and dream (Akindele and Adegbite 1999:96).

To properly relate Sapir–Whorf hypothesis with the use of Nigerian situation, it is pertinent to focus mostly in the three major Nigerian languages of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, linguistic tools such as words, proverbs, idioms and wise sayings relating to types of food, clothing (wears), politics, education, morality and other aspects of the culture of each of the above linguistic communities

Samples of some Hausa linguistic tools and their resultant/engendered behavioural patterns

Linguistic toolResultant/Engendered behaviour
a. Types of food

i.                     Masa (a type of cake) – ingredients: grinded local rice, onions, baking yeast, sugar, milk, and salt.

ii.                    Dambu (a type of cake) – Ingredients:

moringa, grinded maize, onions, groundnut, groundnut oil, maggi and salt.

The resultant/engendered behaviour is that the Hausas of Nigeria eat (as special delicacies) all the food types listed on the opposite column of this table. In fact, they are the major food types among the Hausas of Nigeria. This is so because such food types are contained in their linguistic inventory.
b. Marriage

i.              Mata na tuba bata rasa mijin aure.

Meaning: A remorseful, patient and apologetic  woman does not remain single (unmarried)

Most Hausa women are skillful in pretending to be humble, remorseful, patient and apologetic before marriage. When she gets into marriage proper, her real

self will show up.

c.     Education

i.              Illimin ‘ya mace ya kan kare a gidan miji Meaning: Educating a female child is a waste because she will end up in her husband house.

That is why (most) Hausa parents are not incline to sending their daughters to school. Instead, they marry them off early because a woman’s dignity, as dictated by the language, is to be in her husband’s house (Darajan iya mace gidan miji ta). This is a strict

adherence to linguistic instruction.

Samples of some Yoruba linguistic tools and their engendered behavioural patterns

Linguistic ToolResultant/Engendered behaviour
a) Types of Food

i.                Amala: (Dried grinded yam/cassava mixed in boiled water) – it is served with any type of soup.

i.                Ewedu: (a type of soup) – ingredients: cooked ewedu leaves (pounded), locust beans, maggi, onions, pepper (it is usually mixed with already prepared stew and served with Amala or Fufu).


The resultant/engendered behaviour is that the  Yorubas of Nigeria eat (as special delicacies) all the food types listed on the opposite column of this table. In fact, they are the major food types among the Yorubas of Nigeria. This is so because such food types are contained in their linguistic inventory.
b)       Clothing (Wears)

i.                     Buba

ii.                    Esiki

iii.                  Sapara

iv.                   Awotele

v.                     Dandogo

vi.                   Agbada

vii.                  Gibariye

viii.                Sulia

ix.                   Oyala

The Yorubas of Nigeria use the types of wears listed on the opposite column as their major (traditional) attire. Whoever wears them is either a Yoruba or is imitating the Yorubas of Nigeria.

Samples of some Igbo linguistic tools and the engendered behavioural patterns

Linguistic toolResultant/Engendered behavior
a) Types of food

i.                     Abacha (a type of salad) – ingredients: sliced cassava, palm oil, salt, potash, fish, locust beans, spices (magi).


The engendered behaviour is that the Igbos of Nigeria eat (as special delicacies) all the food types listed on the opposite column of this table. In fact, they are the major food types among the Igbos. This is so because such food types are contained in their linguistic inventory.
(b) General Issues

i.      Nwata kwakaya osoru okele rie uri

Meaning: A child who washes his hands clean eat with elders

Most, Igbos work very hard and can be desperate to attain the height of being considered ‘having washed their hands clean’, so as to be worthy of eating with elders and kings, such a person no matter how young he may be, is usually invited to the meeting of Ndichie

to share and contribute ideas.

In relation to the aforesaid view, Wardhaugh (2010:232) notes that “different speakers will therefore experience the world differently insofar as the language they speak differ structurally”. Thus, the grammatical categories available in a language not only influence its speakers’ worldviews, but also control and limit such worldviews. For this reason, “if speakers of one language have certain words to describe things and speakers of another language lack similar words, then speakers of the first language will find it easier to talk about those things” (Fishman 1972). Sapir (1949:162) adds that “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation”. It is these choices that allow speakers of one language to interpret the same things in different ways from speakers of another language.


In a nutshell, it’s concluded that that language policies and language development in Nigeria have some cultural implications that decision-makers in this sphere should not ignore at the peril of our cultures. This is because the death of a language is a death knell for the culture. It is true that survivors of a dead culture and language eventually acquire a new culture and a new corresponding language. But this change cannot be an easy process, psychologically and emotionally, and it is highly probable that something of the past, some knowledge or some expression or item of the lost culture is also lost to the world in the process. The message is unmistakable. Culture and language are but a mirror of each other. The death of the one means the death of the other.


Abiodun, J. O. (2003). Ethnolingustics: the relation of Language to culture. Lagos: Lisjohnson Resources Publishers.

Akindele, F. and Adegbite, W. (1999). The sociology and polities of English in Nigeria: An introduction. Ile-Ife: Obafemi Awolowo University Press.

Discuss the concept of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Relate it with the Use of Nigeria Situation

Aliyu, J. S. (1999). The Problems of Multilingualism in Nigerian Primary and Post-Primary Schools. Language in Education in Nigeria, Vol. 1. London: Virago.

Discuss the concept of Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Relate it with the Use of Nigeria Situation

Obot, J. U. (2007). Nigeria: The people and their Heritage. Calabar: Wusen Press.

Sapir, E. (1929). Conceptual categories in primitive language. New York: Harcourt – Brace.

Sapir, E (1945). Language. New York: Harcourt – Brace.

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