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Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: An Etiquette Without Gender Discrimination Terms


Modern political communications in democratic countries are substantially built on general principles. Such principles are not limited exclusively by the requirements of tolerance but also are dictated by the considerations of political correctness. Nevertheless, when looking at the latter terms, i.e. political correctness, it can be seen that the terms are necessarily related to politics, but rather to a certain space in linguistics, which is neutral and free from any political, economic, racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination terms. It became a certain form of etiquette, which is based on a thesis presented within the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

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The aforementioned hypothesis reverses the common perception regarding communications and reality, in which the language reflects the realities of the world and the surroundings. On contrary, based on the hypothesis, people in their perception of the world are dependable on their native language. Accordingly, language is not a label, which can be put on an already-formed thought, but the language traditions predetermine the way people perceive the world in such a way, and not the other. In that regard, this paper analyzes politically correct language and its interrelation with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in terms of the justification of changing our vocabulary to match the requirements of being politically correct.


The sapir-Whorf hypothesis was formulated by linguist-anthropologist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf, which formally states that “there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories and patterns of a language, and the worldview and structures of thought and behavior of its speakers.” (“Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” 2009).

Explaining the hypothesis, the example provided by Whorf can be self-explanatory. Whorf can be considered as the founder of researches devoted to the roles of linguistic metaphors in conceptualizing reality. Whorf gave an example of people hanging around a warehouse with gasoline drums, where they behave accordingly, i.e. being cautious in lighting fire or smoking close to that warehouse.

On the other hand, if it was written “empty gasoline drums” on the warehouse, people will behave differently, insufficiently cautious, smoking and even throwing cigarettes near the drums.

Nevertheless, the empty gasoline drums can be even more dangerous, as they might contain explosive fumes. (Whorf) In that regard, the figurative meaning of the word empty, i.e. meaningless and having no consequences, lead to that that the situation with empty drums is modeled in the consciousness of the people as safe, and thus the subsequent behavior and corresponding catastrophes in this example depend on merely linguistic factors.

Relations with political correctness

Relating such concept to political correctness, an example of a politically correct phrase that refers to the poor layer of the population as economically disadvantaged rather than poor; retarded people are people with learning difficulties, disabled people are referred to as physically challenged; businessman, chairman, congressman, fireman, etc, accordingly should respectively be replaced by an executive, chairperson, member of Congress, fire-fighter.

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According to Sapir-Whorf, the replaced words in the aforementioned examples are based on stereotypes, and thus they force the reality to be perceived according to these biased stereotypes. It should be mentioned that it is not necessarily related to any bigotry, as a study of unconscious bias revealed the unsettling truth, “We all use stereotypes, all the time, without knowing it. We have met the enemy of equality, and the enemy is us.” (Paul, 1998)Thus, these stereotypes, according to Sapir-Whorf, are enforced by linguistic habits.

Constantly using the word disabled for people with disabilities, people are unconsciously biased toward such people using the stereotypes that are built-in the figurative meaning of the word “disabled.” The same can be applied to masculine words, which were mentioned as examples. The cognitive approach in explaining the automation in stereotyping people states that we all use categories – of people, places, things – to make sense of the world around us.” (Paul, 1998).

Similarly, the linguistic habits with “politically incorrect” terms attempt to categorize the world into men and everybody else, where the language implies that the positions mentioned are associated with men. The political correctness accordingly, toward the female part of the population, which is considered that it was discriminated by the male part, is concerned with using words that do not refer to the gender association. For example in the word Chairman, a morpheme that indicates that the character is male and thus neutral analog would be chairperson.

Assessing the changes made in the usage of politically correct terms, the purpose intended from using such words can be seen from the comments made by Ben Johnson, a major participant in the development of a Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases, who stated that the purpose was to have media be more sensitive in covering minorities (Spring, 1992).

Influence on the freedom of expression

Others consider that politically correct language influences freedom of expression, where misinterpretation of the intentions of the words might lead to “certain blandness, with a lack of humor, clarity, and meaning.” (Spring, 1992).

Additionally, it could be stated that political correctness in some cases can be seen as vague; not indicating what the real purpose of the word used is, e.g. substance abuse. Nevertheless, certain words are affecting the way people behave, specifically if the terms were known to be offensive or humiliating. An example can be given through the word nigger, which can be considered as extremely offensive with the African American population if it comes from the white population, while it might indicate a degree of acquaintance within a certain layer of African Americans themselves.

In that regard, the word might influence the way people behave when pronouncing it, depending on the figurative meaning, which in turn is dependable on the situation and the speaker. However, generally speaking, the usage of most politically correct words cannot force changing the perception of the discussed object, being merely a pronounced word, where “one could say the most appropriate words and remain hopelessly biased.” (Spring, 1992).

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In that regard, the politically correct language’s influence can be summarized as an instrument of preventing conflicts in a politically correct society – between black and whites, between women and men, between heterosexuals and homosexuals, etc, by establishing special norms of linguistic etiquette. The perception of all these parties in the society will not necessarily change through, where the behavior might change while the speaker might still be biased.

The justification of politically correct vocabulary can be explained in terms of its relation to the formal side of human relations in society. Thus, it is merely a guarantee of safety from claims in bias in discrimination or bias, as a requirement of tolerance in democratic communications.

Certain terms do have explicit meanings that might be interpreted offensively for some groups, and accordingly, their substitution with politically correct analogs will eventually lead to that the original words will no longer be associated with such groups. Other terms though, bringing the neutrality in language, not only lose the original meaning of the word, they turn the language into a set of artificial technical terms, which the only purpose is delivering vague data, rather than information, and unidentified nouns lacking description in order not to accidentally touch anyone’s feelings.


It can be concluded that Sapir-Whorf as a hypothesis has interesting ideas which reflect an unusual interpretation of the relation between language and reality. The interrelation between the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and politically correct language, with the first as one of the explanations of the latter, can be questioned. Politically correct language can be justified in certain aspects, where the fear of bias or discrimination might lead to people will be limited in their freedom of expression.

On the other hand, for people who represent homophobic, nationalistic, xenophobic, or racial opinions, political correctness will not result in liking the aforementioned groups or even treat them tolerantly. Generally, political correctness will imply that such people will keep their opinions to themselves, or choose their words in public.


  1. Paul, A. M. (1998). Where bias begins: The truth about stereotypes Psychology Today. New York: Sussex.
  2. Boroditsky, L. (2009). HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? Web.
  3. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. (2009). Web.
  4. Spring, N. (1992). Freedom of speech vs. politically correct language Communication World. Farmington Hills, Michigan: The Gale Group.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 14). Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: An Etiquette Without Gender Discrimination Terms.

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"Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: An Etiquette Without Gender Discrimination Terms." StudyCorgi, 14 Nov. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: An Etiquette Without Gender Discrimination Terms." November 14, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: An Etiquette Without Gender Discrimination Terms." November 14, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: An Etiquette Without Gender Discrimination Terms." November 14, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: An Etiquette Without Gender Discrimination Terms'. 14 November.

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