Linguistic relativity

The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view or cognition. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined to include two versions. The strong version says that language determines thought, and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories, whereas the weak version says that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions.

The term "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis" is considered a misnomer by linguists for several reasons: Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf never co-authored anything, and never stated their ideas in terms of a hypothesis. The distinction between a weak and a strong version of this hypothesis is also a later invention; Sapir and Whorf never set up such a dichotomy, although often in their writings their views of this relativity principle are phrased in stronger or weaker terms.[1][2]

The idea was first clearly expressed by 19th-century thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, who saw language as the expression of the spirit of a nation. Members of the early 20th-century school of American anthropology headed by Franz Boas and Edward Sapir also embraced forms of the idea to one extent or another, but Sapir in particular wrote more often against than in favor of anything like linguistic determinism. Sapir's student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, came to be seen as the primary proponent as a result of his published observations of how he perceived linguistic differences to have consequences in human cognition and behavior. Harry Hoijer, one of Sapir's students, introduced the term "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis",[3] even though the two scholars never formally advanced any such hypothesis.[4] A strong version of relativist theory was developed from the late 1920s by the German linguist Leo Weisgerber. Whorf's principle of linguistic relativity was reformulated as a testable hypothesis by Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg who conducted experiments designed to find out whether color perception varies between speakers of languages that classified colors differently. As the study of the universal nature of human language and cognition came into focus in the 1960s the idea of linguistic relativity fell out of favor among linguists. A 1969 study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay demonstrated the existence of universal semantic constraints in the field of color terminology which were widely seen to discredit the existence of linguistic relativity in this domain, although this conclusion has been disputed by relativist researchers.

From the late 1980s a new school of linguistic relativity scholars have examined the effects of differences in linguistic categorization on cognition, finding broad support for non-deterministic versions of the hypothesis in experimental contexts.[5][6] Some effects of linguistic relativity have been shown in several semantic domains, although they are generally weak. Currently, a balanced view of linguistic relativity is espoused by most linguists holding that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes in non-trivial ways, but that other processes are better seen as arising from connectionist factors. Research is focused on exploring the ways and extent to which language influences thought.[5] The principle of linguistic relativity and the relation between language and thought has also received attention in varying academic fields from philosophy to psychology and anthropology, and it has also inspired and colored works of fiction and the invention of constructed languages.


Linguistic determinism

The strongest form of the theory is linguistic determinism, which holds that language entirely determines the range of cognitive processes. The hypothesis of linguistic determinism is now generally agreed to be false.[7]

Linguistic influence

This is the weaker form, proposing that language provides constraints in some areas of cognition, but that it is by no means determinative. Research on weaker forms have produced positive empirical evidence for a relationship.[7]


The idea that language and thought are intertwined is ancient. Plato argued against sophist thinkers such as Gorgias of Leontini, who held that the physical world cannot be experienced except through language; this made the question of truth dependent on aesthetic preferences or functional consequences. Plato held instead that the world consisted of eternal ideas and that language should reflect these ideas as accurately as possible.[8] Following Plato, St. Augustine, for example, held the view that language was merely labels applied to already existing concepts. This view remained prevalent throughout the Middle Ages.[9] Roger Bacon held the opinion that language was but a veil covering up eternal truths, hiding them from human experience. For Immanuel Kant, language was but one of several tools used by humans to experience the world.

German Romantic philosophers

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the idea of the existence of different national characters, or "Volksgeister", of different ethnic groups was the moving force behind the German romantics school and the beginning ideologies of ethnic nationalism.

In 1820, Wilhelm von Humboldt connected the study of language to the national romanticist program by proposing the view that language is the fabric of thought. Thoughts are produced as a kind of internal dialog using the same grammar as the thinker's native language.[10] This view was part of a larger picture in which the world view of an ethnic nation, their "Weltanschauung", was seen as being faithfully reflected in the grammar of their language. Von Humboldt argued that languages with an inflectional morphological type, such as German, English and the other Indo-European languages, were the most perfect languages and that accordingly this explained the dominance of their speakers over the speakers of less perfect languages. Wilhelm von Humboldt declared in 1820:

The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world.[10]

Boas and Sapir

The idea that some languages are superior to others and that lesser languages maintained their speakers in intellectual poverty was widespread in the early 20th century. American linguist William Dwight Whitney, for example, actively strove to eradicate Native American languages, arguing that their speakers were savages and would be better off learning English and adopting a civilized way of life.[11] The first anthropologist and linguist to challenge this view was Franz Boas.[12] While undertaking geographical research in northern Canada he became fascinated with the Inuit people and decided to become an ethnographer. Boas stressed the equal worth of all cultures and languages, that there was no such thing as a primitive language and that all languages were capable of expressing the same content, albeit by widely differing means. Boas saw language as an inseparable part of culture and he was among the first to require of ethnographers to learn the native language of the culture under study and to document verbal culture such as myths and legends in the original language.


It does not seem likely [...] that there is any direct relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak, except in so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the state of the culture, but not in so far as a certain state of the culture is conditioned by the morphological traits of the language."[13]

Boas' student Edward Sapir reached back to the Humboldtian idea that languages contained the key to understanding the world views of peoples. He espoused the viewpoint that because of the differences in the grammatical systems of languages no two languages were similar enough to allow for perfect cross-translation. Sapir also thought because language represented reality differently, it followed that the speakers of different languages would perceive reality differently.


No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.[14]

On the other hand, Sapir explicitly rejected strong linguistic determinism by stating, "It would be naïve to imagine that any analysis of experience is dependent on pattern expressed in language."[15]

Sapir was explicit that the connections between language and culture were neither thoroughgoing nor particularly deep, if they existed at all:

It is easy to show that language and culture are not intrinsically associated. Totally unrelated languages share in one culture; closely related languages—even a single language—belong to distinct culture spheres. There are many excellent examples in Aboriginal America. The Athabaskan languages form as clearly unified, as structurally specialized, a group as any that I know of. The speakers of these languages belong to four distinct culture areas... The cultural adaptability of the Athabaskan-speaking peoples is in the strangest contrast to the inaccessibility to foreign influences of the languages themselves.[16]

Sapir offered similar observations about speakers of so-called "world" or "modern" languages, noting, "possession of a common language is still and will continue to be a smoother of the way to a mutual understanding between England and America, but it is very clear that other factors, some of them rapidly cumulative, are working powerfully to counteract this leveling influence. A common language cannot indefinitely set the seal on a common culture when the geographical, physical, and economics determinants of the culture are no longer the same throughout the area."[17]

While Sapir never made a point of studying directly how languages affected thought, some notion of (probably "weak") linguistic relativity underlay his basic understanding of language, and would be taken up by Whorf.

Drawing on influences such as Humboldt and Friedrich Nietzsche, some European thinkers developed ideas similar to those of Sapir and Whorf, generally working in isolation from each other. Prominent in Germany from the late 1920s through into the 1960s were the strongly relativist theories of Leo Weisgerber and his key concept of a 'linguistic inter-world', mediating between external reality and the forms of a given language, in ways peculiar to that language.[18] Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky read Sapir's work and experimentally studied the ways in which the development of concepts in children was influenced by structures given in language. His 1934 work "Thought and Language"[19] has been compared to Whorf's and taken as mutually supportive evidence of language's influence on cognition.[20] Drawing on Nietzsche's ideas of perspectivism Alfred Korzybski developed the theory of general semantics that has been compared to Whorf's notions of linguistic relativity.[21] Though influential in their own right, this work has not been influential in the debate on linguistic relativity, which has tended to center on the American paradigm exemplified by Sapir and Whorf.

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Main article: Benjamin Lee Whorf

More than any linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf has become associated with what he called the "linguistic relativity principle".[22] Studying Native American languages, he attempted to account for the ways in which grammatical systems and language use differences affected perception. Whorf also examined how a scientific account of the world differed from a religious account, which led him to study the original languages of religious scripture and to write several anti-evolutionist pamphlets.[23] Whorf's opinions regarding the nature of the relation between language and thought remain under contention. Critics such as Lenneberg, Black and Pinker attribute to Whorf a strong linguistic determinism, while Lucy, Silverstein and Levinson point to Whorf's explicit rejections of determinism, and where he contends that translation and commensuration is possible.

Although Whorf lacked an advanced degree in linguistics, his reputation reflects his acquired competence. His peers at Yale University considered the 'amateur' Whorf to be the best man available to take over Sapir's graduate seminar in Native American linguistics while Sapir was on sabbatical in 1937–38.[24] He was highly regarded by authorities such as Boas, Sapir, Bloomfield and Tozzer. Indeed, Lucy wrote, "despite his 'amateur' status, Whorf's work in linguistics was and still is recognized as being of superb professional quality by linguists".[25]

Detractors such as Lenneberg, Chomsky and Pinker criticized him for insufficient clarity in his description of how language influences thought, and for not proving his conjectures. Most of his arguments were in the form of anecdotes and speculations that served as attempts to show how 'exotic' grammatical traits were connected to what were apparently equally exotic worlds of thought. In Whorf's words:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language [...] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.[26]
Whorf's illustration of the difference between the English and Shawnee gestalt construction of cleaning a gun with a ramrod. From the article "Language and Science", originally published in the MIT Technology Review, 1940. Image copyright of MIT Press.

Among Whorf's best-known examples of linguistic relativity are instances where an indigenous language has several terms for a concept that is only described with one word in European languages (Whorf used the acronym SAE "Standard Average European" to allude to the rather similar grammatical structures of the well-studied European languages in contrast to the greater diversity of less-studied languages).

One of Whorf's examples was the supposedly large number of words for 'snow' in the Inuit language, an example which later was contested as a misrepresentation.[27]

Another is the Hopi language's words for water, one indicating drinking water in a container and another indicating a natural body of water. These examples of polysemy served the double purpose of showing that indigenous languages sometimes made more fine grained semantic distinctions than European languages and that direct translation between two languages, even of seemingly basic concepts such as snow or water, is not always possible.

Another example from Whorf's experience as a chemical engineer working for an insurance company as a fire inspector.[27] While inspecting a chemical plant he observed that the plant had two storage rooms for gasoline barrels, one for the full barrels and one for the empty ones. He further noticed that while no employees smoked cigarettes in the room for full barrels, no-one minded smoking in the room with empty barrels, although this was potentially much more dangerous because of the highly flammable vapors still in the barrels. He concluded that the use of the word empty in connection to the barrels had led the workers to unconsciously regard them as harmless, although consciously they were probably aware of the risk of explosion. This example was later criticized by Lenneberg[28] as not actually demonstrating causality between the use of the word empty and the action of smoking, but instead was an example of circular reasoning. Pinker in The Language Instinct ridiculed this example, claiming that this was a failing of human insight rather than language.

Whorf's most elaborate argument for linguistic relativity regarded what he believed to be a fundamental difference in the understanding of time as a conceptual category among the Hopi.[23] He argued that in contrast to English and other SAE languages, Hopi does not treat the flow of time as a sequence of distinct, countable instances, like "three days" or "five years," but rather as a single process and that consequently it has no nouns referring to units of time as SAE speakers understand them. He proposed that this view of time was fundamental to Hopi culture and explained certain Hopi behavioral patterns. Malotki later claimed that he had found no evidence of Whorf's claims in 1980's era speakers, nor in historical documents dating back to the arrival of Europeans. Malotki used evidence from archaeological data, calendars, historical documents, modern speech and concluded that there was no evidence that Hopi conceptualize time in the way Whorf suggested. Universalist scholars such as Pinker often see Malotki's study as a final refutation of Whorf's claim about Hopi, whereas relativist scholars such as Lucy and Penny Lee criticized Malotki's study for mischaracterizing Whorf's claims and for forcing Hopi grammar into a model of analysis that doesn't fit the data.[29]

Whorf died in 1941 at age 44, leaving multiple unpublished papers. His line of thought was continued by linguists and anthropologists such as Hoijer and Lee who both continued investigations into the effect of language on habitual thought, and Trager, who prepared a number of Whorf's papers for posthumous publishing. The most important event for the dissemination of Whorf's ideas to a larger public was the publication in 1956 of his major writings on the topic of linguistic relativity in a single volume titled Language, Thought and Reality.

Eric Lenneberg

In 1953 Eric Lenneberg criticised Whorf's examples from an objectivist view of language holding that languages are principally meant to represent events in the real world and that even though languages express these ideas in various ways, the meanings of such expressions and therefore the thoughts of the speaker are equivalent. He argued that Whorf's English descriptions of a Hopi speaker's view of time were in fact translations of the Hopi concept into English, therefore disproving linguistic relativity. However Whorf was concerned with how the habitual use of language influences habitual behavior, rather than translatability. Whorf's point was that while English speakers may be able to understand how a Hopi speaker thinks, they do not think in that way.[30]

Lenneberg's main criticism of Whorf's works was that he never showed the connection between a linguistic phenomenon and a mental phenomenon. With Brown, Lenneberg proposed that proving such a connection required directly matching linguistic phenomena with behavior. They assessed linguistic relativity experimentally and published their findings in 1954.

Since neither Sapir nor Whorf had ever stated a formal hypothesis, Brown and Lenneberg formulated their own. Their two tenets were (i) "the world is differently experienced and conceived in different linguistic communities" and (ii) "language causes a particular cognitive structure".[31] Brown later developed them into the so-called "weak" and "strong" formulation:

  • Structural differences between language systems will, in general, be paralleled by nonlinguistic cognitive differences, of an unspecified sort, in the native speakers of the language.
  • The structure of anyone's native language strongly influences or fully determines the worldview he will acquire as he learns the language.[32]

Brown's formulations became widely known and were retrospectively attributed to Whorf and Sapir although the second formulation, verging on linguistic determinism, was never advanced by either of them.

Since Brown and Lenneberg believed that the objective reality denoted by language was the same for speakers of all languages, they decided to test how different languages codified the same message differently and whether differences in codification could be proven to affect behavior.

They designed experiments involving the codification of colors. In their first experiment, they investigated whether it was easier for speakers of English to remember color shades for which they had a specific name than to remember colors that were not as easily definable by words. This allowed them to compare the linguistic categorization directly to a non-linguistic task. In a later experiment, speakers of two languages that categorize colors differently (English and Zuni) were asked to recognize colors. In this way, it could be determined whether the differing color categories of the two speakers would determine their ability to recognize nuances within color categories. Brown and Lenneberg found that Zuñi speakers who classify green and blue together as a single color did have trouble recognizing and remembering nuances within the green/blue category.[33] Brown and Lenneberg's study began a tradition of investigation of linguistic relativity through color terminology.

Universalist period

Main articles: Universalism, Universalism and relativism of color terminology, and Relativism of color terminology

Lenneberg was also one of the first cognitive scientists to begin development of the Universalist theory of language that was formulated by Chomsky in the form of Universal Grammar, effectively arguing that all languages share the same underlying structure. The Chomskyan school also holds the belief that linguistic structures are largely innate and that what are perceived as differences between specific languages are surface phenomena that do not affect the brain's universal cognitive processes. This theory became the dominant paradigm in American linguistics from the 1960s through the 1980s, while linguistic relativity became the object of ridicule.[34]

Examples of universalist influence in the 1960s are the studies by Berlin and Kay who continued Lenneberg's color research. They studied color terminology formation and showed clear universal trends in color naming. For example, they found that even though languages have different color terminologies, they generally recognize certain hues as more focal than others. They showed that in languages with few color terms, it is predictable from the number of terms which hues are chosen as focal colors, for example, languages with only three color terms always have the focal colors black, white and red.[35] The fact that what had been believed to be random differences between color naming in different languages could be shown to follow universal patterns was seen as a powerful argument against linguistic relativity.[36] Berlin and Kay's research has since been criticized by relativists such as Lucy, who argued that Berlin and Kay's conclusions were skewed by their insistence that color terms encode only color information.[37] This, Lucy argues, made them blind to the instances in which color terms provided other information that might be considered examples of linguistic relativity.

Other universalist researchers dedicated themselves to dispelling other aspects of linguistic relativity, often attacking Whorf's specific points and examples. For example, Malotki's monumental study of time expressions in Hopi presented many examples that challenged Whorf's "timeless" interpretation of Hopi language and culture.[38]

Today many followers of the universalist school of thought still oppose linguistic relativity. For example, Pinker argues in The Language Instinct that thought is independent of language, that language is itself meaningless in any fundamental way to human thought, and that human beings do not even think in "natural" language, i.e. any language that we actually communicate in; rather, we think in a meta-language, preceding any natural language, called "mentalese." Pinker attacks what he calls "Whorf's radical position," declaring, "the more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make."[39]

Pinker and other universalists have been accused by relativists of misrepresenting Whorf's views and arguing against strawmen.[40][37][30]

Joshua Fishman's "Whorfianism of the third kind"

Joshua Fishman argued that Whorf's true position was largely overlooked. In 1978, he suggested that Whorf was a "neo-Herderian champion"[41] and in 1982, he proposed "Whorfianism of the third kind" in an attempt to refocus linguists' attention on what he claimed was Whorf's real interest, namely the intrinsic value of "little peoples" and "little languages".[42] Whorf had criticized Ogden's Basic English thus:

But to restrict thinking to the patterns merely of English […] is to lose a power of thought which, once lost, can never be regained. It is the 'plainest' English which contains the greatest number of unconscious assumptions about nature. […] We handle even our plain English with much greater effect if we direct it from the vantage point of a multilingual awareness.[43]

Where Brown's weak version of the linguistic relativity hypothesis proposes that language influences thought and the strong version that language determines thought, Fishman's 'Whorfianism of the third kind' proposes that language is a key to culture.

Cognitive linguistics

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, advances in cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics renewed interest in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.[44] One of those who adopted a more Whorfian approach was George Lakoff. He argued that language is often used metaphorically and that languages use different cultural metaphors that reveal something about how speakers of that language think. For example, English employs conceptual metaphors likening time with money, so that time can be saved and spent and invested, whereas other languages do not talk about time in that way. Other such metaphors are common to many languages because they are based on general human experience, for example, metaphors likening up with good and bad with down. Lakoff also argued that metaphor plays an important part in political debates such as the "right to life" or the "right to choose"; or "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers".


In his book Women, Fire and Dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind,[30] Lakoff reappraised linguistic relativity and especially Whorf's views about how linguistic categorization reflects and/or influences mental categories. He concluded that the debate had been confused. He described four parameters on which researchers differed in their opinions about what constitutes linguistic relativity.

One parameter is the degree and depth of linguistic relativity. Perhaps a few examples of superficial differences in language and associated behavior are enough to demonstrate the existence of linguistic relativity. Alternatively, perhaps only deep differences that permeate the linguistic and cultural system suffice.

A second parameter is whether conceptual systems are absolute or whether they can evolve.

A third parameter is whether the similarity criterion is translatability or the use of linguistic expressions.

A fourth parameter is whether the locus of linguistic relativity is in language or in the brain. Lakoff concluded that many of Whorf's critics had criticized him using novel definitions of linguistic relativity, rendering their criticisms moot.

Rethinking Linguistic Relativity

The publication of the 1996 anthology Rethinking Linguistic Relativity edited by Gumperz and Levinson began a new period of linguistic relativity studies that focused on cognitive and social aspects. The book included studies on the linguistic relativity and universalist traditions. Levinson documented significant linguistic relativity effects in the linguistic conceptualization of spatial categories between languages. Separate studies by Bowerman and Slobin treated the role of language in cognitive processes. Bowerman showed that certain cognitive processes did not use language to any significant extent and therefore could not be subject to linguistic relativity. Slobin described another kind of cognitive process that he named "thinking for speaking" – the kind of process in which perceptional data and other kinds of prelinguistic cognition are translated into linguistic terms for communication. These, Slobin argues, are the kinds of cognitive process that are at the root of linguistic relativity.


Researchers such as Boroditsky, Lucy and Levinson believe that language influences thought in more limited ways than the broadest early claims. Researchers examine the interface between thought (or cognition), language and culture and describe the relevant influences. They use experimental data to back up their conclusions.[45][46] Kay ultimately concluded that "[the] Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left".[47] His findings show that accounting for brain lateralization offers another perspective.

Psycholinguistic studies explored motion perception, emotion perception, object representation and memory.[48][49][50][51] The gold standard of psycholinguistic studies on linguistic relativity is now finding non-linguistic cognitive differences in speakers of different languages (thus rendering inapplicable Pinker's criticism that linguistic relativity is "circular").

Recent work with bilingual speakers attempts to distinguish the effects of language from those of culture on bilingual cognition including perceptions of time, space, motion, colors and emotion.[52] Researchers described differences between bilinguals and monolinguals in perception of color,[53] representations of time[54] and other elements of cognition.

Empirical research

Lucy identified three main strands of research into linguistic relativity.[55]


The "structure-centered" approach starts with a language's structural peculiarity and examines its possible ramifications for thought and behavior. The defining example is Whorf's observation of discrepancies between the grammar of time expressions in Hopi and English. More recent research in this vein is Lucy's research describing how usage of the categories of grammatical number and of numeral classifiers in the Mayan language Yucatec result in Mayan speakers classifying objects according to material rather than to shape as preferred by English speakers.[56]


The "domain-centered" approach selects a semantic domain and compares it across linguistic and cultural groups. It centered on color terminology, although this domain is acknowledged to be sub-optimal, because color perception, unlike other semantic domains, is hardwired into the neural system and as such is subject to more universal restrictions than other semantic domains.

Space is another semantic domain that has proven fruitful for linguistic relativity studies.[57] Spatial categories vary greatly across languages. Speakers rely on the linguistic conceptualization of space in performing many ordinary tasks. Levinson and others reported three basic spatial categorizations. While many languages use combinations of them, some languages exhibit only one type and related behaviors. For example, Yimithirr only uses absolute directions when describing spatial relations — the position of everything is described by using the cardinal directions. Speakers define a location as "north of the house", while an English speaker may use relative positions, saying "in front of the house" or "to the left of the house".[58]


The "behavior centered" approach starts by comparing behavior across linguistic groups and then searches for causes for that behavior in the linguistic system. Whorf attributed the occurrence of fires at a chemical plant to the workers' use of the word 'empty' to describe the barrels containing only explosive vapors. Bloom noticed that speakers of Chinese had unexpected difficulties answering counter-factual questions posed to them in a questionnaire. He concluded that this was related to the way in which counter-factuality is marked grammatically in Chinese. Other researchers attributed this result to Bloom's flawed translations.[59] Strømnes examined why Finnish factories had a higher occurrence of work related accidents than similar Swedish ones. He concluded that cognitive differences between the grammatical usage of Swedish prepositions and Finnish cases could have caused Swedish factories to pay more attention to the work process while Finnish factory organizers paid more attention to the individual worker.[60]

Everett's work on the Pirahã language of the Brazilian Amazon[61] found several peculiarities that he interpreted as corresponding to linguistically rare features, such as a lack of numbers and color terms in the way those are otherwise defined and the absence of certain types of clauses. Everett's conclusions were met with skepticism from universalists[62] who claimed that the linguistic deficit is explained by the lack of need for such concepts.[63]

Recent research with non-linguistic experiments in languages with different grammatical properties (e.g., languages with and without numeral classifiers or with different gender grammar systems) showed that language differences in human categorization are due to such differences.[64] Experimental research suggests that this linguistic influence on thought diminishes over time, as when speakers of one language are exposed to another.[65]

Color terminology

Research continued after Lenneberg/Roberts and Brown/Lenneberg. The studies showed a correlation between color term numbers and ease of recall in both Zuni and English speakers. Researchers attributed this to focal colors having higher codability than less focal colors, and not with linguistic relativity effects. Berlin/Kay found universal typological color principles that are determined by biological rather than linguistic factors.[35] This study sparked studies into typological universals of color terminology. Researchers such as Lucy,[66] Saunders[67] and Levinson[68] argued that Berlin and Kay's study does not refute linguistic relativity in color naming, because of unsupported assumptions in their study (such as whether all cultures in fact have a clearly-defined category of "color") and because of related data problems. Researchers such as Maclaury continued investigation into color naming. Like Berlin and Kay, Maclaury concluded that the domain is governed mostly by physical-biological universals.[69][70]

Other domains

Linguistic relativity inspired others to consider whether thought could be influenced by manipulating language.

Science and philosophy

The question bears on philosophical, psychological, linguistic and anthropological questions.

A major question is whether human psychological faculties are mostly innate or whether they are mostly a result of learning, and hence subject to cultural and social processes such as language. The innate view holds that humans share the same set of basic faculties, and that variability due to cultural differences is less important and that the human mind is a mostly biological construction, so that all humans sharing the same neurological configuration can be expected to have similar cognitive patterns.

Multiple alternatives have advocates. The contrary constructivist position holds that human faculties and concepts are largely influenced by socially constructed and learned categories, without many biological restrictions. Another variant is idealist, which holds that human mental capacities are generally unrestricted by biological-material strictures. Another is essentialist, which holds that essential differences may influence the ways individuals or groups experience and conceptualize the world. Yet another is relativist (Cultural relativism), which sees different cultural groups as employing different conceptual schemes that are not necessarily compatible or commensurable, nor more or less in accord with external reality.[71]

Another debate considers whether thought is a form of internal speech or is independent of and prior to language.

In the philosophy of language the question addresses the relations between language, knowledge and the external world, and the concept of truth. Philosophers such as Putnam, Fodor, Davidson, Dennett) see language as representing directly entities from the objective world and that categorization reflect that world. Other philosophers (e.g. Wittgenstein, Quine, Searle, Foucault) argue that categorization and conceptualization is subjective and arbitrary.

Another question is whether language is a tool for representing and referring to objects in the world, or whether it is a system used to construct mental representations that can be communicated.

Therapy and self-development

Sapir/Whorf contemporary Alfred Korzybski was independently developing his theory of general semantics, which was aimed at using language's influence on thinking to maximize human cognitive abilities. Korzybski's thinking was influenced by logical philosophy such as Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica and Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.[72] Although Korzybski was not aware of Sapir and Whorf's writings, the movement was followed by Whorf-admirer Chase, who fused Whorf's interest in cultural-linguistic variation with Korzybski's programme in his popular work "The Tyranny of Words". S. I. Hayakawa was a follower and popularizer of Korzybski's work, writing Language in Thought and Action. The general semantics movement influenced the development of neurolinguistic programming, another therapeutic technique that seeks to use awareness of language use to influence cognitive patterns.[73]

Korzybski independently described a "strong" version of the hypothesis of linguistic relativity.[74]

We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of s[emantic] r[eactions] and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us.
Korzybski (1930) [75]

Artificial languages

In their fiction, authors such as Ayn Rand and George Orwell explored how linguistic relativity might be exploited for political purposes. In Rand's Anthem, a fictive communist society removed the possibility of individualism by removing the word "I" from the language, and in Orwell's 1984 the authoritarian state created the language Newspeak to make it impossible for people to think critically about the government.

Others have been fascinated by the possibilities of creating new languages that could enable new, and perhaps better, ways of thinking. Examples of such languages designed to explore the human mind include Loglan, explicitly designed by James Cooke Brown to test the linguistic relativity hypothesis, by experimenting whether it would make its speakers think more logically. Speakers of Lojban, an evolution of Loglan, report that they feel speaking the language enhances their ability for logical thinking. Suzette Haden Elgin, who was involved in the early development of neurolinguistic programming, invented the language Láadan to explore linguistic relativity by making it easier to express what Elgin considered the female worldview, as opposed to Standard Average European languages which she considered to convey a "male centered" world view.[76] John Quijada's language Ithkuil was designed to explore the limits of the number of cognitive categories a language can keep its speakers aware of at once.[77] Similarly, Sonja Lang's Toki Pona was developed according to a Taoist point of view for exploring how (or if) such a language would direct human thought.[78]

Programming languages

APL programming language originator Kenneth E. Iverson believed that the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis applied to computer languages (without actually mentioning it by name). His Turing award lecture, "Notation as a tool of thought", was devoted to this theme, arguing that more powerful notations aided thinking about computer algorithms.[79]

The essays of Paul Graham explore similar themes, such as a conceptual hierarchy of computer languages, with more expressive and succinct languages at the top. Thus, the so-called blub paradox (after a hypothetical programming language of average complexity called Blub) says that anyone preferentially using some particular programming language will know that it is more powerful than some, but not that it is less powerful than others. The reason is that writing in some language means thinking in that language. Hence the paradox, because typically programmers are "satisfied with whatever language they happen to use, because it dictates the way they think about programs".[80]

In a 2003 presentation at an open source convention, Yukihiro Matsumoto, creator of the programming language Ruby, said that one of his inspirations for developing the language was the science fiction novel Babel-17, based on the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis.[81]

In popular culture

Ted Chiang's short story Story of Your Life developed the concept of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as applied to an alien species which visits Earth. The aliens' biology contributes to their spoken and written languages, which are distinct. The 2016 American film Arrival, based on Chiang's short story, explores how the Heptopods' language enabled the speaker to perceive events in future time periods as 'memories', rather than using linear time.[82][83]

See also


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  2. Kennison, Shelia (2013). Introduction to language development. Los Angeles: Sage.
  3. "The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", in Hoijer 1954:92–105
  4. This usage is now generally seen as a misnomer. As Jane Hill and Bruce Mannheim write: Yet, just as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire the "Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis" is neither consistent with the writings of Sapir and Whorf, nor a hypothesis (Hill & Mannheim 1992, p386)
  5. 1 2 Koerner, E.F.K."Towards a full pedigree of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis: from Locke to Lucy" Chapter in Pütz & Verspoor (2000:17)"
  6. Wolf & Holmes (2011)
  7. 1 2 Ahearn 2011, p. 69.
  8. McComiskey, Bruce (2002). Gorgias and the New Sophistic Rhetoric. SIU Press. ISBN 978-0-8093-2397-5.
  9. Gumperz & Levinson 1996, p. 2.
  10. 1 2 Trabant, Jürgen."How relativistic are Humboldts "Weltansichten"?" in Pütz & Verspoor 2000
  11. Seuren 1998, p. 180.
  12. Seuren 1998, p. 181.
  13. Boas, Franz (1911). Handbook of American Indian languages. 1. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40. Washington: Government Print Office (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology).
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  16. Sapir 1921, p. 213–4.
  17. Sapir 1921, p. 215.
  18. For a critique of Weisgerber, see, for example: Beat Lehmann (1998), ROT ist nicht ″rot″ ist nicht [rot]. Eine Bilanz und Neuinterpretation der linguistischen Relativitätstheorie. Gunter Narr, Tübingen. pp. 58–80; Iwar Werlen (2002), 'Das Worten der Welt', in: Lexikologie ... Ein internationales Handbuch, ed. by D. Alan Cruse et al., Walter de Gruyter, Berlin & New York, 1.380-391.
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  20. Lucy & Wertsch 1987.
  21. Pula 1992.
  22. Whorf 1956, p. 214.
  23. 1 2 Whorf 1956.
  24. Darnell 1990, p. 380-81.
  25. Lucy 1992b, p. 25.
  26. Whorf 1956, p. 212–214.
  27. 1 2 Pullum 1991.
  28. Lenneberg 1953.
  29. Lee 1996 Lee 1996 Leavitt 2011, pp. 179–187 Lucy 1992b, p. 286 Lucy 1996, p. 43 Dinwoodie 2006
  30. 1 2 3 Lakoff 1987.
  31. Brown & Lenneberg 1954, p. 455,457.
  32. Brown 1976, p. 128.
  33. D'Andrade 1995, p. 185.
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  35. 1 2 Berlin & Kay 1969.
  36. Gumperz & Levinson 1996, p. 6.
  37. 1 2 Lucy 1992a.
  38. Malotki 1983.
  39. Pinker 1994, p. 60.
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  42. Fishman 1982, p. 5.
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  44. Seidner 1982.
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Further reading

Deutscher, Guy (26 August 2010), Does Your Language Shape How You Think?, New York Times Magazine, Aug 26, 2010 
Deutscher, Guy (2011), Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Arrow Books, ISBN 978-0-09-950557-0, retrieved 2014-03-17 
Everett, Dan (2005), "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language" (PDF), Current Anthropology, 46 (4): 621, doi:10.1086/431525 
Kay, Paul; Kempton, Willet (1984), "What is the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis?", American Anthropologist, 86 (1): 65–79, doi:10.1525/aa.1984.86.1.02a00050 
Kay, Paul; Chad K., McDaniel (1978), "The Linguistic Significance of Meanings of Basic Color Terms", Language, Linguistic Society of America, 54 (3): 610–646, doi:10.2307/412789, JSTOR 412789 
O'Neill, Sean (2008), Cultural Contact and Linguistic Relativity Among the Indians of Northwestern California, University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 0-8061-3922-6 

External links

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