Language is an essential part of our social lives. Without it, communication will cease and we will never know how to make sense of our lives and the lives of those around us. We may fail to understand others and we fail to allow others to understand us, living in isolation despite others surrounding us.

As such, language is an assumption that is often taken for granted in our lives.  We often overlook how it shapes our lives in minute ways that we’ve come to accept. In this article, we explore the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and the role of language in our cognition. 

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was spearheaded by a teacher-student pair who was largely influenced by Humboldt. Humboldt was a German philosopher who believed that language plays a major role in forming ideas [1]. The hypothesis is an extension of Humboldt’s idea – language shapes the way people perceive the world. Therefore, people from different cultures who think in different languages would experience the same reality differently [2]. 

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis presents itself frequently in our lives. We see it when we find it difficult to translate the meaning of prose from one language to the other, and when we find that there are multiple terms for one concept in another language. For example, it must be quite difficult to capture the full meaning of the phrase ‘Buay Tahan Sia’ to someone who is not familiar with Singlish. Similarly in Arabic, there are 104 unique terms to describe love. The terms all differ in scale and intensity and describe different stages of falling in love [3]. The most familiar example is when we try to translate texts across languages on Google Translate, often resulting in awkward sentences. 

Indeed, the inability to accurately translate the approximate meaning of one word to another across languages doesn’t occur to us every day. However, it has surely occurred frequently enough for us to relate to the examples above.

Zoozu, Burou and Dumbu

However, would we go so far as to say that language influences our perception? Researcher Jules Davidoff and colleagues were interested to find out, and his study participants included native english speakers and adults from the Himba tribe in Namibia, in Southern Africa. An interpretation of what Davidoff presented to his participants are as shown (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Interpretation of the colour wheel used by Jules Davidoff (2015) in his experiment in language and colour perception [4]

When presented with the colour wheel on the left, the Himbas were immediately able to pick out the different colour, but had a much harder time for the colour wheel on the right. Whereas for the participants who were english speaking (and presumably for you too), their performance was reversed [5]. Why was this so? 

It is reported that the Himba tribe did not have a word to distinguish the colour blue from green – blue was seen more as a variation of green. Moreover, the Himbas had unique terms that grouped various colours together differently compared to English speakers. For example, as seen in Figure 2, the Himba use the term Zoozu to describe various darker shades of green and blue, Burou to describe a range of shades spanning green and blue, and Dumbu to describe earthy greens, yellows and browns. This is in comparison to how English speakers categorise colour in Figure 3.

Figure 2: A visual representation of how the Himba participants categorised colour [5]

Figure 2: A visual representation of how the Himba participants categorised colour [5]

As such, the experiment concluded that because of how the colours were grouped linguistically, ideas of what is different and what belongs to the same category was processed differently.

Siniy and Goluboy

Similarly, Native Russian speakers divide colours of the same hue differently from English speakers. Unlike in the English language, ​​Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (“goluboy”) and darker blues (“siniy”), which would be between 8 and 9 shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Shades of blue used in the experiment by Winawer [6]

Winawer and his colleagues found that the Russians were much quicker to discriminate between various shades of blue and determine whether they belonged to the same group. This was especially so when cross-categories of blue were presented, that is, when a ‘Siniy’ shade was compared with a ‘Goluboy’ shade. As native English speakers who do not have a clear distinction between light and dark blue, they were slower to discriminate between the shades presented [6]. 

These experiments conducted on the Himba tribe and on the Russians suggest that linguistic representations often play a part in simple, everyday perceptual tasks, and show how language can seemingly help us draw barriers and group what we see.

Implications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Colour perception seems like a rather mundane everyday task that seems inconsequential in our everyday lives. However, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis remains relevant in our lives today, especially in the age of information technology. If language could already create divisions in perceptions of colour, what more divisions in more complex and nuanced concepts and difficult conversations of social issues? 

Language provides us with tools to help us make sense of our social world. We have words used to distinguish times of the day: “morning” and “night”. We even have words to differentiate between the 3 different meals we would have throughout the day. Furthermore, we also somehow know which food is a more suitable ‘Breakfast’ food and a ‘Dinner’ food. Which would we rather eat for breakfast? Sunny side-up and bacon? Or a well-done steak with wine? We seem to overlook these minute decisions and judgements we make on a daily basis.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis reminds us that when engaging in cross-cultural discussions, especially in the age of increasing interconnectedness, we are called to practise empathy and open-mindedness when faced with such differences. After all, the cultures that we grow up in and learn about can implicitly shape our cognition.


[1] Kay, P., & Kempton, W. (1984). What is the Sapir‐Whorf hypothesis?. American anthropologist, 86(1), 65-79.

[3] Hussein, B. A. S. (2012). The sapir-whorf hypothesis today. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2(3), 642-646.

[3] Kashgary, A. D. (2011). The paradox of translating the untranslatable: Equivalence vs. non-equivalence in translating from Arabic into English. Journal of King Saud University-Languages and Translation, 23(1), 47-57.

[4] Gondwana Collection. (2016). How do Nambian Himbas see colour? Retrieved 17 May 2023 from 

[5] Goldstein, J., Davidoff, J., & Roberson, D. (2009). Knowing color terms enhances recognition: Further evidence from English and Himba. Journal of experimental child psychology, 102(2), 219-238.

[6] Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A. R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 104(19), 7780-7785.