Debate Magazine

Spirits of Sapir-Whorf

By Cris

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.


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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