The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that the language of a person determines the way he or she perceives their environment and society. It is a way of explaining cultural heterogeneity through an entirely linguistic rationale. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, writing in the 1920s, claimed that the world as we know it is largely predetermined by the way we can interpret it through our native languages.
This hypothesis would imply that a psychological state like depression is entirely determined by the words we have available to us to describe it. These words condition how we think about depression and the impressions it makes on our own interpretation of it. Sapir and Whorf defined language as a set of symbols that can be strung together in an infinite number of ways for the purpose of communicating abstract thought. And though this can be done endlessly, a person is limited to the symbols that his or her language contains, limiting the number of possible ways they can experience the same phenomenon.
One of the languages of South Africa is, easily enough, English, which is widely spoken primarily by white South Africans. Understanding depression through the English language is done primarily by attaching descriptive adjectives and adverbs to a corresponding verb. In psychotherapy, for example, a client may start by saying that he or she “feels” something, and then attach an indicator to the verb. For example, they may say “I feel lonely” or “I feel hopeless.”
According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the words “lonely” and “hopeless” are symbols which convey an extraordinary depth of possible meanings, which will only be fully clear to native speakers of English. Furthermore, certain particles of English, like “really” (i.e., “I really feel lonely”), add connotative emphasis, which only comes through advanced understandings of the mechanics of the language.
Another official language of South Africa is Xhosa, one of the click languages of the Niger-Congo language family. Though this language is phonetically different from English, it still has a richly expressive vocabulary, which allows Zulus and other Xhosa-speaking peoples to express a wide range of emotionality, including depression. One unique factor about Xhosa is that much of the emotionality can be expressed simultaneously with ritual performance, dance, and song. This could indicate that, linguistically, expressing a concept like depression purely through the spoken word is inconceivable. The language itself must be accompanied by its corresponding physical symbolism.