“We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language … we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941)

What does it mean largely because we are parties to an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language?

What I understood is we just build our value with our language. But we can not talk and understand each other except we have the same culture things. Right?

  • We cannot talk about those things that our language is not able to describe. (Heck, we can hardly even think about such things, since conscious human thought is so tightly intertwined with language.) – Hot Licks Feb 26 '16 at 20:54

As I interpreted it, he is looking at speakers of a language as the "agreeing parties" and the languages themselves as the "agreement." Whorf is saying that people's minds function the way they do because of the way that their language is structured.

Also, I think there is an emphasis on the verb choice of "talk" as opposed to "speak," as talking implies this communication to be two-sided. He is saying people cannot talk (to one another) without understanding how other people's languages shape their thoughts.


The 'agreement' is ideas about how the universe is ordered, and the 'codified' is the words that we use to label them.

The idea (often attributed to Saussure) is that words point to ideas, not to objects. "Cat", for example, is not a little furry purring thing, but a human idea. Humans look at the animal world, categorise it in some way according to human criteria, and decide that one particular group that humans percieve as having some common characteristic will be labelled 'cats'. We do much the same thing with the entire universe. Chop it all up and pigeon-hole it.

The significance being pointed out by Whorf is that for me to talk to you about a cat, we have to agree a) on the concept of a cat and b) to codify that agreement with the label 'cat'. For a language to function all the users of that language (the speech community) have to agree on the concepts they use, and the labels that codify them.

This can be seen by looking at other languages. Indonesian, for example, is a speech community that agrees with English speakers on what the concept of a cat is, but codifies it as kuching. They do not agree with the English speaking conept of what a rat or a mouse is, as (like the Vietnamese) they draw no distinction between rats and mice, seeing them as the same animal in different sizes and codified as tikus.

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