Useful Background: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Benjamin Lee Whorf, credited with the development of linguistic relativity (image via Wikipedia)

Benjamin Lee Whorf, credited with the development of linguistic relativity (image via Wikipedia)

When I decided I wanted to make “an interactive documentary about sexuality and language,” I felt confident in my expertise. I study documentary production at The New School, and I have produced short documentaries in the past. I have also studied queer theory, and I learned a great deal about sexual identity politics during the four years I worked as a grant writer in the LGBT nonprofit world. But…then there’s that last part. “Language.” I talk about language, I’m fascinated by language, but I am no linguistics expert. Mastering a new field of knowledge in a matter of months was not in the cards for me, but I wanted to at least understand the basics of sociolinguistics, so that my art would have appropriate theoretical grounding.

My friend Joshua Levy, a Graduate Student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, saved the day by introducing me to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as “linguistic relativity.” In short, the theory argues that language directly influences one’s understanding of the world and identity. The existing language available to individuals has an impact on the ways in which they understand themselves and the world around them. Therefore, when applying the hypothesis to discussions about sexuality and language, one might say that if an individual lacks coherent language to express personal attractions and experiences, that person will be unable to conceive of those attractions and experiences as products of sexual identity.

I believe that every person has the right to self-expression. Yet, it is difficult for many of us to authentically express the complexities of our sexualities with the current vocabulary that exists. Limiting the conversation to “straight,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “queer,” and a handful of other words lumps a wide array of people, all with diverse experiences and attractions and desires, into oversimplified categories. Perhaps the reason why many of us have difficulty articulating the nuances in their sexual orientations is precisely because of linguistic relativity — we can’t express ourselves if we don’t have the right words.

Have you ever found the available sexual orientation labels too confining? Do you agree with the theory of linguistic relativity? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

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One thought on “Useful Background: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

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