Hypothèse Sapir–Whorf

Lundi 21 avril 2014

L'expression Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis fut inventée et publiée pour la première fois par Harry Hoijer en 1954. Les textes de Whorf sont rassemblés et publiés en 1956. C'est l'époque où se crée l'anthropologie cognitive contemporaine. L'hypothèse prend deux formes: 1/ La langue façonne les idées de ceux qui la parlent, et 2/ les mots sont des formes sociales qui structurent le monde vécu.

1 / The shaper of ideas (Whorf)

L'hypothèse formulée d'après Whorf plutôt que d'après Sapir porte sur les relations entre les formes de structuration d'une langue (patterning in language) et les schèmes (schemata) ou images mentales qui structurent la cognition.

(212) When linguists became able to examine critically and scientifically a large number of languages of widely different patterns, . . . they experienced an interruption of phenomena hitherto held universal, and a whole new order of significances came into their ken. It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual's mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation 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 /213/ greatly, between different grammars. 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. 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.

Benjamin L. Whorf, Science and Linguistics [1940], repris dans John B. Carroll, Ed., Language, Thought and Reality. Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf [1897-1941], Cambridge MA, The MIT Press, 1956.

Le champ d'application de l'hypothèse, qui remet en question tout un ensemble d'universaux, est donc l'anthropologie cognitive, la question cruciale est celle du relativisme des modes de pensée. Les matériaux d'enquête dans les langues naturelles sont le lexique, la grammaire et ultérieurement les figures de rhétorique, en particulier les métaphores.

2 / The social patterns called words (Sapir)

Une interprétation différente des textes de Whorf et surtout de Sapir conduit à formuler autrement l'hypothèse (*), en la mettant en rapport non plus avec la cognition mais avec les arts de parole et la poésie. Cette autre ligne de recherches part d'un célèbre article de Sapir publié en 1929 dont le thème et la terminologie ont certainement inspiré Whorf.

Language is becoming increasingly valuable as a guide to the scientific study of a given culture. In a sense, the network of cultural patterns of a civilization is indexed in the language which expresses that civilization. It is an illusion to think that we can understand the significant outlines of a culture through sheer observation and without the guide of the linguistic symbolism which makes these outlines significant and intelligible to society. Some day the attempt to master a primitive culture without the help of the language of its society will seem as amateurish as the labors of a historian who cannot handle the original documents of the civilization which he is describing.

Language is a guide to 'social reality'. Though language is not ordinarily thought of as of essential interest to the students of social science, it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. 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 up on 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.

The understanding of a simple poem, for instance, involves not merely an understanding of the single words in their average significance, but /210/ a full comprehension of the whole life of the community as it is mirrored in the words, or as it is suggested by their overtones. Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose. If one draws some dozen lines, for instance, of different shapes, one perceives them as divisible into such categories as 'straight', 'crooked', 'curved', 'zigzag' because of the classificatory suggestiveness of the linguistic terms themselves. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

For the more fundamental problems of the student of human culture, therefore, a knowledge of linguistic mechanisms and historical developments is certain to become more and more important as our analysis of social behavior becomes more refined. From this standpoint we may think of language as the symbolic guide to culture. In another sense too linguistics is of great assistance in the study of cultural phenomena. Many cultural objects and ideas have been diffused in connection with their terminology, so that a study of the distribution of culturally significant terms often throws unexpected light on the history of inventions and ideas. This type of research, already fruitful in European and Asiatic culture history, is destined to be of great assistance in the reconstruction of primitive cultures.


Edward Sapir, The Status of Linguistics as a Science, Language, Vol. 5, No. 4, December 1929, pp. 207–214.

La fin du dernier paragraphe nous ramène au diffusionnisme et à l'œuvre de Franz Boas. Mais une interprétation ethnopoétique de l'hypothèse dite de Sapir et Whorf est proposée dans le troisième paragraphe: «L'interprétation d'un simple poème… implique une compréhension pleine et entière de toute la vie de la communauté» [de parole]. C'est le fondement de l'ethnopoétique et des recherches contemporaines sur la poéticité naturelle des langues et sur la connivence entre les membres d'une communauté de parole (speech community). Whorf, dans le texte ci-dessus, fonde cette connivence à la fois sur la langue et sur la parole, an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language, «un accord qui s'impose à toute notre communauté de parole et qui est codifié dans les structures de notre langue».

(*) friedrich_reformulation_of_sapir_hypothesis.pdf — Paul Friedrich, Poetic Language and the Imagination: A Reformulation of the Sapir Hypothesis [1979], repris dans Language, Context, and the Imagination. Essays by Paul Friedrich, Selected and Introduced by Anwar S. Dil, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1979, pp. 441-512.

3 / Savoirs-faire partagés et cognition située

Mise en perspective des années 1930 par rapport à nous. Le discours collectif et les pratiques langagières d'un groupe social ou d'une équipe engagée dans l'action sont déterminés par des intérêts communs. L'émergence d'une dynamique intercognitive (emergent intercognitive dynamics) se produit ainsi en situation (in situated encounters).

In between the recognized dialect or language as a whole and the … speech of a given individual lies a kind of linguistic unit which is not often discussed by the linguist but which is of the greatest importance to social psychology. This is the sub-form of a language current within a group of people who are held together by ties of common interest. Such a group may be a family, the undergraduates of a college, a labor union, the underworld in a large city, the members of a club, a group of four or five friends who hold together through life in spite of differences of professional interest, and untold thousands of other kinds of groups.

Edward Sapir, Language [1933], in David G. Mandelbaum Ed., Selected Writings of Edward Sapir, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1949, p. 15.

Cité par Janet Dixon Keller, The Limits of the Habitual: Shifting Paradigms for Language and Thought, in David B. Kronenfeld et al., A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology, Chichester UK, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p. 70.

Keller note l'émergence d'un nouveau vocabulaire lors du changement de paradigme qui nous fait passer du relativisme linguistique classique (l'hypothèse Sapir–Whorf) à l'étude des dynamiques intercognitives enchâssées dans l'action sociale. Le discours collectif est émaillé de mots comme savoirs-faire (skills), équipe (team), leadership. L'objet d'enquête n'est plus la langue mais une communauté de parole.

I propose that shifting paradigms open the possibilities for moving beyond linguistic relativity to a focus on intercognitive dynamics embedded in social action. In the relativity hypothesis the use of the terms language and thought hark back to [reviennent à, en sont toujours à] the structural notion of langue [la langue comme système de signes] and the dualistic sign [signifiant-signifié] in which phonological strings are irrevocably attached to significances. In the view proposed here, neither language nor thought are monolithic and, as a result, linguistic expressions have no one-to-one relation with other cognitive modalities. Thinking involves interanimation between different linguistic and non-linguistic representations and processes. … The poststructuralist mind allows for multiple dynamics and for distinct human intelligences more or less adept at particular modes of engaging with the world.

Janet Dixon Keller, The Limits of the Habitual: Shifting Paradigms for Language and Thought, in David B. Kronenfeld et al., A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology, Chichester UK, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p. 74.

Les études contemporaines sur la cognition située nous libèrent ainsi du structuralisme et de la notion héritée de Saussure d'une langue monolithique qui était systématiquement associés à l'hypothèse du relativisme linguistique.