The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

by Marnanel Thurman

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that your thoughts are shaped by the language you use. This is a pervasive idea; I remember as a child discovering Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the idea that you can restrict people's ability to rebel by restricting their language. The hypothesis hasn't been widely believed by linguists for a long time, at least not in a way that means people's thought is necessarily restricted by the languages they speak. But there is still research going on into whether it has a more subtle influence.

So, yes, we were just talking about tea, weren't we? Yesterday I found myself at a very pleasant tea-party where I met a gentleman from Tanzania. We talked about Bantu linguistics, amongst other things, and it reminded me of a story I'd once seen in a book. Later, I found the book and scanned the page.

The book was written by an Englishman living in Swahili-speaking parts of Africa in the early twentieth century. In a chapter about the Bantu verb system he digresses to explain why he couldn't get a decent cup of tea: it turned out, he said, that because the Swahili verb "to boil" is derived from their verb "to jump", it covers all the time from when the water starts bubbling, whereas the English verb to boil covers only when it's actually becoming steam. So he would say to someone, "Could you boil me some water and make the tea?" and it would be undrinkable, until he learnt the difference in the meaning of the verbs.

A page from an old Swahili textbook

However, he doesn't tell us what stopped him making his own cup of tea!