The relationship between language and disease concepts

Int J Psychiatry Med. 1976-1977;7(1):57-68. doi: 10.2190/6cek-xu4j-hyf0-9gcp.


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, well-known in anthropological linguistics, postulates that language may not only describe the world we inhabit but also mould the way we experience it. This paper argues that an individual's language may similarly determine his conception of disease. Possible relationships between linguistic features and disease concepts are cited for the Eskimo, the Navaho, and the Chines, and it is suggested that, in European languages, the extensive use of spatial metaphors to express abstract concepts may encourage a more rigid categorization of disease and inhibit the ability to conceive of multiple factors in disease causation. The use of nouns rather than verbs to express the idea of illness could lead to a static view of disease and tends to separate illnesses as distinct entities rather than defining them as aspects of bodily functioning. The bipolar structure of Indo-European languages, setting subject against predicate and noun against verb, may play a part in the persistence of the mind-body dichotomy and restrict the holistic perception of man with nature. These linguistic features, in leading to a conception of disease as a rigidly defined, unchanging, unicausal thing, may encourage an over-use of surgery and lead to difficulty in perceiving social and psychological factors in disease.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Disease / etiology
  • Europe
  • General Surgery
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American
  • Inuits
  • Language*
  • Medicine, Chinese Traditional
  • Semantics