Sapir-Whorf and Perceptions of English Language


Part 1, English Freedom

It’s another presentation at a Saturday conference and this time we’re sitting in a circle discussing the negotiation of second language identities. I mention to the participants and fellow presenters that my dissertation will examine perceptions of empowerment and queer identity facilitation via the learning and performance of English (as a semiotic act/space). Heads nod when I suggest that there is something about English and English speakers that reference a sense of freedom for many language learners outside the American context. I follow with the question, “But is it really English that allows for this freedom in alternative identities, or would any second language allow this?” The room offers a unanimous “It’s English.”

Sitting around me from my left to my right are as follows: A Korean female, a Jordanian female, an American male, an Indonesian female, two Chinese females, another Indonesian female, a Thai male, a Kazakh female, and a Japanese female. One of the Chinese women adds, “It’s the structure of English.” I press her, “What do you mean?” A conversation ensues where we at first talk of the nature of the English language and the lack of formal word structure with regards to politeness and interlocutor identity-dependent forms. “It’s freer, English,” offers the Japanese woman, “and I was encouraged by my teachers to speak up, umm, to speak out and tell my feeling. I don’t have to think about my word choices making insult to the listener in the same way that I have to in Japanese.” She goes on to explain that to open one’s mouth (in the Japanese context) is to invite risk of losing face. “Americans,” she continues, “can say their opinion easily, and it is expected.”

The woman from Kazakhstan offers, “I can speak more freely in English.” I again continue, “But is it because English is your second language, or is it something to do with the English language itself?” She reveals that actually English is her 5th language behind Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and German and so this contradicts my hypothesis that any second language allows such freedoms of expression. I casually mention that this question (of English influencing the behavior of its speakers) reminds me of Sapir-Whorf and pronounce it with a soft “a” sound, like tree sap. The other American male in our group corrects my pronunciation to emphasize the hard “a” as in ape, and clarifies, “You mean that language shapes thought?” It’s the first time a few of the other participants have heard of this, so together we explain.

The real world is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group (Sapir, 1951, p.160).
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In their research as to the validity of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Kay and Kempton paraphrase the above, “…an intellectual system embodied in each language shapes the thought of its speakers in quite a general way” (1984, p.66). They conclude:

It is possible to give Sapir and Whorf readings that accord with this empirically motivated view of linguistic relativity and determinism. Such a reading is not the one usually given and is certainly not what most anthropology students are taught as “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.” The case seems to be that first, languages differ semantically but not without constraint, and second, that linguistic differences may induce nonlinguistic cognitive differences but not so absolutely that universal cognitive processes cannot be recovered under appropriate contextual conditions. (p.77).<!–[if !supportLineBreakNewLine]–> <!–[endif]–>

I question the group, “Could it be that there is something comparatively as opposed to inherently freer about English when considered and performed by other language speakers?” This then compels me to wonder if it really is the structure of the language as opposed to the social contexts in which English is spoken in that references this sense of freedom and lack of structure.


Part II, “I’m gay in English, but I’m not gay in Japanese”

“…the notion of ‘sex’ in general, and more specifically, how the idea that individuals inhabit or express themselves through distinct ‘sexualities’ is a modern innovation confined largely to those cultures with their roots in northern Europe” (Jñanavira, n.d.).

My dissertation topic now flashes in front of me, a Broadway marquis, a line of stock quotes, ever present in my mind. It all begins with the comment made to me by a man I met 5 years ago on one very strange blind date, “I’m gay in English, but I’m not gay in Japanese”. This astounded me for he seemed to me to be quite obvious, and by obvious I mean effeminate. Shame on me for the stereotype, though I do believe that sexual orientation is as equally evocative of a range of gendered expression as is biological sex. For every fem I’ve met, I’ve also met gay men whom I would never think twice about and whom I would assume to be heterosexual if given no specific reason to think otherwise. “But what’s the easiest way to spot a gay?” I ask myself. “Femininity in voice or behavior is the easiest cue,” I reply.

            But this must be my Western take on sexuality, and McLelland discusses that this approach to sexual identity does not necessarily apply to other cultures, like Japan, where sexual behavior does not necessarily index one’s identity:

Unfortunately, despite the new information that has recently been made available, some researchers still insist on viewing ‘homosexuality’ in Japanese society through western eyes and evaluating the situation facing lesbians and gay men in accordance with western models of what it means to be ‘a lesbian’ or ‘a gay.’ …as recent research has shown, the notion of ‘coming out’ is seen as undesirable by many Japanese gay men and lesbians as it necessarily involves adopting a confrontational stance against mainstream lifestyles and values, which many still wish to endorse. (McLelland, Section 4)

As McLelland hints, the words gay, coming out, and homosexual, for example, do not necessarily reference the same semiotic concepts to Japanese (especially not in past historical contexts) as they do for many Westerners. Even the concepts that Japanese words themselves reference (re: homosexual behavior) differ from those used by Westerners (homosexual identity). McLelland continues:

The novelist Mishima Yukio, writing a novel about homosexual love just after the war, produced a neologism: danshoku-ka [i.e. danshoku-ist] to denote male homosexuals, although he does also refer to the usage of the word ‘gay’ among the occupation forces in a chapter entitled ‘Gay Party.’ However, at this time, ‘gay’ existed as a loan word in Japanese only as part of the term geiboi [‘gay boy’] which signified a cross-dressing male hustler. The term geiboi is used in this sense in Matsumoto Toshio’s 1968 film Funeral Parade of Roses [Bara no sooretsu]. This film, starring the famous Japanese transvestite actor Peter, is shot in documentary style and gives an interesting account of Tokyo’s late-60s underground gay scene where ‘normal’ adult men maintained relationships with younger transgendered men who worked in Japan’s mizu shoobai [‘water trade’ or entertainment business]. Today, homosexuality in Japan is largely conflated with cross-dressing and transgenderism due to the prominence of cross-dressed individuals featured in the media and the entertainment world. Thus, homosexual men are understood to be okama (literally a ‘pot’ but meaning something similar to the English word ‘queen’) and are usually represented as cross-dressed and effeminate. The use of the term okama derives from the slang usage of the term to refer to the buttocks and thereby to anal sex which is considered to be the definitive sexual act engaged in by homosexual men. However, use of this term is extremely loose and it can be used to describe a man who displays any transgender attribute. For instance, an article in the current-affairs magazine AERA (1 March 1999) on men who adopt female names and personae in order to participate in women-only Internet chat lines, describes such men as netto okama [Net okama], although here there is no relation between the adoption of a female name and same-sex attraction. Okama are regularly featured on TV comedy shows in Japan and can also be found in Japan’s mizu shoobai where they serve as entertainers in okama bars serving a straight (and predominantly male) clientele.

The above passage underscores the concept of linguistic relativism – as defined by Meyerhoff, “…the value of one factor is not wholly independent of the value of another factor, but instead is somehow constrained by it” (2006, p. 292) – that although the terms are different in what they actually connote, the denotations of an alternative sexuality are similar.

            Returning to Part 1 of this essay, could it be that English and English-speaking culture itself, with reference to gay-friendly television shows, “out” celebrities, expectations to speak one’s mind, and newsworthy struggles for equal rights among hetero- and homo-sexuals, might be considered more favorably by specific Japanese, namely those who seek to assert queer identities in a culture where queer identity is not necessarily a common expression? More information as to the psychological ramifications and functions of a queer identity is needed to further understand how Japanese gays and lesbians might be either self-perpetuating their own sexual (identity) repression or preserving their anonymity and avoiding public shame, and how and why English language with its questionably “freer” structure is used as a semiotic space/act that facilitates or empowers these same individuals. Perhaps if this is the case, and if the participants from the Saturday conference truly believe their assertions about the freedoms of English inherent in its structure and indices, this phenomena might invite doubters to reconsider their beliefs about the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis.


Kay, P. & Kempton, W. (1984). What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? American

Anthropologist, 86(1), 65-79.

Jñanavira, Dharmachari. (n.d.). Homosexuality in the Japanese Buddhist Tradition.

Western Buddhist Review, 3. Retrieved September 27th, 2007 from

McLelland, M. (2000). Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan.

Intersections, 3. Retrieved September 27th, 2007 from

Meyerhoff, M. (2006). Introducing Sociolinguistics. Great Britain: Routledge.

Sapir, E. (1951). The Status of Linguistics as a Science. Selected Writings (David

Mandelbaum, Ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.


About Marlen Harrison

Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison has been teaching language, communication, composition, literature and gender/sexuality studies at universities in Asia, Europe and North America since 1997.
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