The hypothesis of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis , the Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language
affects its speakers' world view
, and thus people's perceptions are relative to their spoken language. However, the idea did not originate with Edward Sapir
or Benjamin Lee Whorf
, but rather, was imported from German humanistic thinking by various American authors.
Being related to the concept of the spirit or ''Geist
'', it is a core tenet of Völkerpsychologie
and other versions of post-Hegelian philosophy
and German romanticism
The idea is often stated in two forms: the ''strong hypothesis'', now referred to as linguistic determinism
, was held by some of the early linguists before World War II,
[ (a debate between university professors)]
while the ''weak hypothesis'' is mostly held by some of the modern linguists.
* The ''strong'' version, or ''linguistic determinism'', says that language ''determines'' thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. This version is generally agreed to be false by modern linguists.
* The ''weak'' version says that linguistic categories and usage only ''influence'' thought and decisions.
The principle had been accepted and then abandoned by linguists during the early 20th century following the changing perceptions of social acceptance
for the other
especially after World War II.
The origin of formulated arguments against the acceptance of linguistic relativity is attributed to Noam Chomsky
The principle of linguistic relativity and the relation between language and thought has also received attention in varying academic fields from philosophy
, and it has also inspired and coloured works of fiction and the invention of constructed language
The term "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis" is considered a misnomer by linguists for several reasons: Sapir and Whorf never co-authored any works, 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 their writings and their views of this relativity principle are phrased in stronger or weaker terms.
The idea was first clearly expressed by 19th-century thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt
and Johann Gottfried Herder
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 a certain extent, including in a 1928 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, 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
, another of Sapir's students, introduced the term "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", even though the two scholars never formally advanced any such hypothesis. 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.
From the late 1980s, a new school of linguistic relativity scholars has examined the effects of differences in linguistic categorization on cognition, finding broad support for non-deterministic versions of the hypothesis in experimental contexts.
[Koerner, E.F.K. "Towards a full pedigree of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis: from Locke to Lucy", chapter in .]
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.
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.
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 has produced positive empirical evidence
for a relationship.
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.
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
. 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.
Although himself a Swede, Emanuel Swedenborg
inspired several of the German Romantics. As early as 1749, he alludes to something along the lines of linguistic relativity in commenting on a passage in the table of nations in the book of Genesis:
In 1771 he spelled this out more explicitly:
Johann Georg Hamann
is often suggested to be the first among the actual German Romantics to speak of the concept of "the genius of a language." In his "Essay Concerning an Academic Question", Hamann suggests that a people's language affects their worldview:
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.
[Trabant, Jürgen. "How relativistic are Humboldts "Weltansichten"?", in .]
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 inflection
al 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:
In Humboldt's humanistic understanding of linguistics, each language creates the individual's worldview in its particular way through its lexical and grammatical categories, conceptual organization, and syntactic models.
Herder worked alongside Hamann to establish the idea of whether or not language had a human/rational or a divine origin. Herder added the emotional component of the hypothesis and Humboldt then took this information and applied to various languages to expand on the hypothesis.
Boas and Sapir
The German concept of the spirit of the nation
was imported to American linguistics by William Dwight Whitney
who was associated with the Neogrammarian
s. Wilhelm Wundt
's nation psychology
was imported to American anthropology by Franz Boas who taught Sapir who in turn became Whorf's teacher; and, again by Leonard Bloomfield, translating Wundt's ideas into English. Due to the rise anti-German mentality after WWI it became necessary to hide this overarching German influence behind American names and terminology.
Like in Europe, the "genius" concept was developed in different ways in American textbooks.
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. The first anthropologist and linguist to challenge this view was Franz Boas
. 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 myth
s and legends in the original language.
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.
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."
Sapir was explicit that the connections between language and culture were neither thoroughgoing nor particularly deep, if they existed at all:
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."
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. 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''" has been compared to Whorf's and taken as mutually supportive evidence of language's influence on cognition. 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. 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
More than any linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf has become associated with what he called the "linguistic relativity principle". 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-evolution
ist pamphlets. Whorf's opinions regarding the nature of the relation between language and thought remain under contention. Critics such as Lenneberg, Black
attribute to Whorf a strong linguistic determinism, while Lucy
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. He was highly regarded by authorities such as Boas, Sapir, Bloomfield
. 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".
Detractors such as Lenneberg, Chomsky
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:
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.
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 is from Whorf's experience as a chemical engineer working for an insurance company as a fire inspector. 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 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
. 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.
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''.
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.
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". 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.
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
) 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. Brown and Lenneberg's study began a tradition of investigation of linguistic relativity through 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.
Examples of universalist influence in the 1960s are the studies by Berlin
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. 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. 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. 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, but seemingly failed to address linguistic relativist argument actually posed by Whorf (i.e. that the understanding of time by native Hopi speakers differed from that of speakers of European languages due to the differences in the organization and construction of their respective languages; Whorf never claimed that Hopi speakers lacked any concept of time). Malotki himself acknowledges that the conceptualizations are different, but because he ignores Whorf's use of scare quotes around the word "time" and the qualifier "what we call," takes Whorf to be arguing that the Hopi have no concept of time at all.
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."
Pinker and other universalists have been accused by relativists of misrepresenting Whorf's views and arguing against strawmen
Joshua Fishman's "Whorfianism of the third kind"
argued that Whorf's true position was largely overlooked. In 1978, he suggested that Whorf was a "neo-Herderian
champion" 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". Whorf had criticized Ogden
's Basic English
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''.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, advances in cognitive psychology
and cognitive linguistics
renewed interest in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. 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 associating ''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'', 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:
* 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.
* Whether conceptual systems are absolute or whether they can evolve
* Whether the similarity criterion is translatability or the use of linguistic expressions
* Whether the focus 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
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. For example, men speaking the Guugu Yimithirr language
gave accurate navigation instructions using a compass-like system of north, south, east and west, along with a hand gesture pointing to the starting direction.
Separate studies by Bowerman
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.
Kay ultimately concluded that "he
Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left". His findings show that accounting for brain lateralization
offers another perspective.
studies explored motion perception, emotion perception, object representation and memory.
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. Researchers described differences between bilinguals and monolingual
s in perception of color, representations of time and other elements of cognition.
Lucy identified three main strands of research into linguistic relativity.
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.
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. 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".
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. 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.
's work on the Pirahã language
of the Brazil
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 who claimed that the linguistic deficit is explained by the lack of need for such concepts.
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. Experimental research suggests that this linguistic influence on thought diminishes over time, as when speakers of one language are exposed to another.
A study published by the American Psychological Association
's Journal of Experimental Psychology
claimed that language can influence how one estimates time. The study focused on three groups, those who spoke only Swedish, those who spoke only Spanish and bilingual speakers who spoke both of those languages. Swedish speakers describe time using distance terms like "long" or "short" while Spanish speakers do it using quantity related terms like "a lot" or "little". The researchers asked the participants to estimate how much time had passed while watching a line growing across a screen, or a container being filled, or both. The researchers stated that "When reproducing duration, Swedish speakers were misled by stimulus length, and Spanish speakers were misled by stimulus size/quantity." When the bilinguals were prompted with the word "duración" (the Spanish word for duration) they based their time estimates of how full the containers were, ignoring the growing lines. When prompted with the word "tid" (the Swedish word for duration) they estimated the time elapsed solely by the distance the lines had traveled.
Kashima & Kashima showed that people living in countries where spoken languages often drop pronouns
(such as Japanese
) tend to have more collectivistic
values than those who use non–pronoun drop languages such as English
. They argued that the explicit reference to “you” and “I” reminds speakers the distinction between the self
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. This study sparked studies into typological universals of color terminology. Researchers such as Lucy, Saunders and Levinson 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.
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
), 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.
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
, Davidson, and Dennett
see language as representing directly entities from the objective world and that categorization reflect that world. Other philosophers (e.g. 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 Wittgenstein
's ''Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Although Korzybski was not aware of Sapir and Whorf's writings, the movement was followed by Whorf-admirer Stuart 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 neuro-linguistic programming
(NLP), another therapeutic technique that seeks to use awareness of language use to influence cognitive patterns.
Korzybski independently described a "strong" version of the hypothesis of linguistic relativity.
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. In Orwell's ''1984
'' the authoritarian state created the language Newspeak
to make it impossible for people to think critically about the government, or even to contemplate that they might be impoverished or oppressed, by reducing the number of words to reduce the thought of the locutor.
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 neuro-linguistic 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. 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. 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.
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.
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".
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.
In popular culture
'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. In the 2016 American film ''Arrival''
, based on Chiang's short story, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the premise. The protagonist explains that "the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the theory that the language you speak determines how you think".
In his science fiction novel ''The Languages of Pao
'' the author Jack Vance
describes how specialized languages are a major part of a strategy to create specific classes in a society, to enable the population to withstand occupation and develop itself.
In the Samuel R. Delany
science fiction novel, "Babel-17
," the author describes a highly advanced, information-dense language that can be used as a weapon. Learning it turns one into an unwilling traitor as it alters perception and thought.
Category:Arguments in philosophy of mind
Category:Concepts in epistemology
Category:Concepts in the philosophy of mind
Category:Concepts in the philosophy of science
Category:Linguistic theories and hypotheses
Category:Metaphysics of mind
Category:Philosophy of language
Category:Theory of mind