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Linguistic Relativity
Nadya Peek
University of Amsterdam
December 22nd, 2006
Linguistic Relativity hypothesis proposes that the particular language one speaks
influences the way one thinks about reality. In this paper, I will aim to explain
the historical background of the hypothesis, to define the variants of the hypothesis and to give an overview of the empirical study that has been done so
The influence of language upon thought was a popular topic in philosophy, especially in the late nineteenth century, with Wittgenstein and Russell pounding on
the symbolic representations of the structure of reality in their works on the philosophy of language. Previously, investigations into the intellectual implications
of the diversity of language had also been very popular, in the work of Locke,
Condillac, Diderot, Hamman and Herder. These diversifying findings were opposed by the universal grammarians on grounds of the subsequent unreliability
of language based knowledge, and also partially by the political climate of the
time which sought to justify the colonization and education that the European
homegrounds were pushing.
However, the linguistic relativity hypothesis was not formally coined by the
philosophy or the political community, but was formed somewhere in the early
twentieth century along the anthropology/linguistics student-professor line of
Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. They were researching unwritten languages compared to European languages, to find empirical evidence
(against) the then popular anthropological view that unwritten languages were
less logically rich than European languages. [Sapir-1921]
Once exposed to the available differences in other languages and the communities that spoke them, they published extensively about their ideas. Whorf
famously wrote:
”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 kaleidoscopic flux of impression which have to be
organized in our minds. This means, largely, by the linguistic system in our
minds.” [Whorf-1956]
Because of the extensive work done by Sapir and Whorf on linguistic relativity,
the hypothesis is sometimes also known as the Sapir Whorf hypothesis. Since
Sapir and Whorf, much work has been done to make the hypothesis more precise,
and after a significant body of citations, the definition of the linguistic relativity
hypothesis has converged to the following:
1. Structural differences in language will be paralleled by nonlinguistic cognitive differences. [Brown-1976]
2. Languages differ in their interpretations of experience, both in what they
select for representation and how they arrange it. [Lucy-1999]
Implicitly, the hypothesis is also said to state a third proposition:
3. The semantic systems of different languages vary without constraint
Depending on which variant of the hypothesis you are considering, the truth
values of 1, 2 and 3 diminish or increase. For strong linguistic relativity, the hypothesis can be summarized to Language determines thought. For weak linguistic relativity, this becomes Language influences thought. The strong view also
implicitly states that there can be no thought without language. [Penn-1972]
Despite the unfaltering theoretical interest in this subject, the empirical studies
done for the linguistic relativity hypothesis are fairly limited. They can generally
be divided into three different types: the structurally centered, the domain
centered and the behavior centered.
The structurally centered approach is what Whorf took in his comparison of
Hopi and English in The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language. It begins with an observed difference between languages, and then
explains the interpretations of reality that are implicit to the two compared
schools. It then seeks to find evidence for the language’s influence on thought.
In Whorf’s study, he determines the differences between plurality, mass connotation and time connotation in Hopi and English as the reasons for structural differences in Hopi and SAE (standard average european) behavior. [Whorf-1941]
Although the languages can clearly differ, the structural approach is weak in
its inability to establish a neutral basis for comparison- the approach is open to
unexpected interpretations of reality.
The vast amount of research that has been done for color categorization can be
attributed to the domain centered approach. Starting from a domain of experienced reality which can be determined independently of language, the approach
compares how various languages select (name) and organize it. The study of
color categorization aims to divide different color sensations into classes corresponding to the color connoting words in particular languages. When the first
studies were done researching color categorization, they sought to find proof
from radical linguistic relativism, and reportedly found it. [Ray-1952] These
results were later countered by Berlin and Kay [Berlin-1969], who did literature
research of 78 different languages and found that there are universals in the semantics of color and also a common evolutionary sequence for the development
of color lexicons. These findings at first partially disregarded because of the
grounds of their research: they used literature research instead of field work,
the countries they researched were predominantly industrialized and literate,
and the participants also spoke English as a second language. Finally the research was redone in a more systematic fashion by Kay and Regier [Kay-2003],
and led to the same conclusions as the BK studies. Even though color categorization is so avidly studied, it does not really provide an adequate refutation
of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, since it is limited to a clear cut section of
language that can be easily mapped to human physiology.
Behavior centered approaches stem from a difference in a behavior that the
researcher seeks to map to a difference in the native language. The behavior observed has clear implications for the parties involved: in Whorf’s study
described in Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language the final
pages are about the Habitual Behavior Features of Hopi Culture, which according to Whorf differ significantly in their inner preparations and concentrations.
Another example is the psychologist Alfred Bloom’s study of the inability of the
Chinese to reason counterfactually (to think hypothetically about that which
is not true). [Bloom-1979] Unfortunately for Bloom, his conclusions were reverted when psychologists Au and Liu rewrote the stories included in his study
into Chinese with a correct use of counterfactual markers. [Au-1983] A similar
revision of Whorf’s study is not (yet) available, but the difficulties of behavior
centered approaches have become clear. Behavior centered approaches have previously also been criticised for only indirectly addressing the linguistic relativity
Linguistic relativity remains a popular concept in philosophy and science fiction,
but seems to have lost its popularity in empirical research. This is partially due
to the difficulties encountered in researching the field- proof that certain behaviors map to linguistic differences remains elusive, domain centered approaches
are too narrowly defined to be able to encompass all of a language and structural differences in languages are hard to research unless you find truly bilingual
candidates. Studies conducted now have an unreliable air: both the innumerable words eskimos have for snow and the numerable words amazonians have
for numbers have been proven and disproven periodically. The increasing popularity of the universality and innateness of language (especially by prominent
linguists such as Chomsky) has left linguistic relativity trailing even further behind. Both linguistic determinism and radical linguistic relativity are widely
considered untrue, but their empirical research yet does little to support this.
[Au-1983] T.K. Au. Chinese and English counterfactuals: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis revisited. Cognition, 15(1-3):155–187, 1983.
[Berlin-1969] P. Kay B. Berlin. Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and
Evolution. University of California, Berkeley, 1969.
[Bloom-1979] A.H. Bloom. The Impact of Chinese Linguistic Structure on Cognitive Style. Current Anthropology, 20(3):585–586, 1979.
[Brown-1976] R.L. Brown. Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Conception of Linguistic
Relativity. 1976.
[Kay-1984] W Kempton P Kay. What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? American
Anthropologist, 86(1):65–79, 1984.
[Kay-2003] T. Regier P. Kay. Resolving the question of color naming universals.
PNAS, 100(15):9085–9089, 2003.
[Lucy-1999] F.C. Keil R.A. Wilson. MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences,
Linguistic Relativism entry. MIT Press, 2003.
[Penn-1972] J.M. Penn. Linguistic relativity versus innate ideas: the origins of
the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in German . Mouton, 1972.
[Ray-1952] V Ray. Techniques and problems in the study of human color perception. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, (8):251–959, 1952.
[Sapir-1921] E. Sapir. Language: An introduction to the study of speech. Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1921.
[Whorf-1941] B.L Whorf. Language, Culture, and Personality: Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir. Menasha, 1941.
[Whorf-1956] J.B. Carrol B.L. Whorf. Language, thought, and reality. MIT
Press, 1956.