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Critically evaluate the language relativity hypothesis

The language relativity hypothesis (henceforth LRH) is founded in

the problem that languages express thoughts in certain ways, defined by
vocabulary and grammatical rules. As the vocabulary and grammar differ
across languages, it follows that these ways differ between languages;
furthermore, as these methods differ across languages the ideas they
express must also differ. This suggests that ‘speakers of different
languages must have different ways of thinking about the world’
(Boroditsky, 2003; 917), that the language we use in some way restricts
our thought. Whilst it is obvious that there are a huge number of entirely
trivial examples of LRH, such as how jokes or metaphors work in some
languages but not others, for LRH to have any real psychological
significance there must be systematic differences between languages on
more central themes of thought, differences that constitute a restriction
rather than a mere inclination. With this in mind, this essay shall consider
whether LRH has been supported through study into linguistic effects on
the conception of colours, space, time and object classification.
Heider’s 1972 work on the semantic categories of colour names in
the Dani tribe of West New Guinea appears to strongly support the LRH.
Using Munsell Colour chips, Heider found that the Dani held two colour
concepts unlike any previously reported, ‘mili’ and ‘mola’. These terms are
unique as they do not describe either brightness or hue individually, but a
combination of the two. Heider describes this well through a ‘spatial
metaphor’ where ‘the colour space is pictured as a three-dimensional
cylinder, its circumference widest at the centre and becoming
progressively restricted towards each end (the black and white poles)’ (pp.
461). The Dani-specific colour terms focus on ‘the areas of that cylinder
most distant from each other’ (pp. 461); potentially providing a more
descriptive range of colour terms than a linguistic system that divides the
cylinder solely into light and dark along its length.
There are few concrete premises that can be taken from this study,
but it does clearly show that the Dani have different methods of describing
colours than most other languages, from which it follows that they also
think about colours differently. However, this cannot be taken as evidence
for the importance of LRH, it cannot be taken as evidence that these
differences in terms restrict thinking. Heider’s results show that the Dani
are not unanimous in their usage of colour terms; for example, when
asked which chip was the best example of ‘mola’ most Dani chose a dark
red, but some chose a light pink. Furthermore, those that suggested the
best example of mola was a dark red were ‘equally likely to acknowledge
or deny the existence of a ‘red’ term’ (pp. 464), which suggests the ‘red’
category was developing within the language. This and other intra-
cultural variation in category names strongly suggest that the language is
still evolving (Heider, 1972; for further examples see pp. 463-4). If this
evolution in colour terms is caused entirely by intra-cultural factors then
language cannot be completely deterministic of thought.
Heider gives three distinct reasons why contact with other cultures is
an ‘unlikely explanation’ (pp. 464) for this evolution. Firstly, the Dani have
had little contact with other cultures; furthermore those that have did not
use more chromatic colour names than those Dani who had not. Secondly,
only the Dani who used the native term ‘pimut’ used the synonymous
foreign term ‘boksu’ to describe a kind of unsaturated red, suggesting
inter-cultural contact has little effect. Finally, Heider found no examples of
the usage of Indonesian colour terms. Thus, the variation must be caused
by intra-cultural factors, which suggests that language does not restrict
thought as LRH suggests; the language of the Dani may cause them to be
inclined towards a certain mode of thinking, but not restricted.
In terms of spatial reasoning, allocentric and egocentric differences
have been observed between speakers of different languages, most
notably in Pederson et al. (1998). In their study, an ‘animals in a row’ task
was performed, in which participants were presented with a table upon
which a small number of animals were arranged. The participants were
asked to turn round 180° and to position the animals ‘in the same way as
before’ on another table that previously was behind them. It was found
that speakers of languages that most commonly used an egocentric
method of spatial reasoning, in this case Dutch, would arrange the animals
in the same order from the participants own perspective, whilst speakers
of languages that most commonly reasoned allocentrically, in this case
Tzeltal, would arrange the animals in the same order ignoring the change
in their own perspective. These results certainly support the idea that the
participants thinking was influenced by their language, however, this does
not entail that they are restricted by such methods. It is surely a trivial fact
that if a speaker is used to using a certain method they are more likely to
use that method than another when describing spatial relationships
between objects regardless of language. Evidence that language truly
restricts thought could potentially be found through an experiment that
focused upon restriction rather than mere instance. To clarify, study would
be well directed at whether speakers of a predominantly allocentric
language find it harder to arrange items egocentrically and vice versa,
rather than merely that they are more inclined to perform one or the
other, the current study only shows inclination, not restriction.
However, a Dutch speaker is unlikely to have any more difficulty
arranging the animals allocentrically when specifically asked to, and by
the same token a Tzeltal speaker is unlikely to have any more difficulty in
arranging the animals egocentrically when specifically asked to do so. The
systematic difference found by the trial merely highlights that there are
two different types of reasoning by which the reordering of the animals
can be performed, and that participants are likely to use the method most
familiar to them when ambiguously asked to arrange the animals ‘in the
same way as before’ (pp. 270). This question is ambiguous as it requires
but does not define a viewpoint, to say that things are in the same order
as before is to say that they are arranged in the same manner according
to a certain viewpoint; to ask a participant to arrange the animals as
before either allocentrically or egocentrically will not require them to learn
a new word nor is it likely that either method will be found more difficult.
For example, an English speaker will surely be just as competent at
completing the task when asked to ‘arrange the animals in the same way
as before, relative to your own perspective’ as when asked to ‘arrange the
animals in the same way as before, ignoring the change in your own
perspective’. Thus, the overall choices the two groups of participants make
when faced with the ambiguous question may be definable by the
differences between their languages, but this does not entail that their
languages restrict their thought, it merely entails that their thought may
be guided through ambiguity by their language. Again, whilst this supports
the existence of LRH, it also supports its triviality. Perhaps a study could be
performed into whether this instance of LRH is correlated with attributional
styles, such a finding would show the LRH to have important effects on
thinking rather than just trivial tendencies of thinking.
Most, if not all, languages make use of unidirectional spatial terms to
describe the passage of time (Boroditsky, 2001), ‘ahead/behind’ and
‘up/down’ (pp. 4) being the most notable examples. However, the use of
solely spatial terms means that languages are only able to describe our
physical experience of time; furthermore, these terms both specify and
restrict the ways that we can express our experience of time. In her 2001,
Boroditsky performs three experiments that focus upon the difference in
thought about time between speakers of English and Mandarin. Both
groups can use either set of directional terms to describe the passage of
time, but the use of up/down terms in English is no where near as
‘common or systematic’ (pp. 5) as in Mandarin. Thus, Boroditsky’s
question is whether the linguistic bias of Mandarin causes speakers of
Mandarin to be biased in the way they think about the passage of time.
To briefly summarise a fantastic piece of experimental research,
Boroditsky found that English speakers were biased to think about time
horizontally, whilst Mandarin speakers were biased to think about time
vertically, even when the test was in English and utilized purely temporal
terms such as earlier/later rather than spatial terms. In the second
experiment it was found that native mandarin speakers we less likely to
display bias if they had started learning English at an earlier age, and that
the length of time they had been learning was inconsequential. Finally in
experiment three Boroditsky observed that English speakers could be
easily trained to think of time vertically just as Mandarin speakers did.
In these experiments Boroditsky has clearly found evidence that
supports the LRH; it is clear that the habitual differences in the description
of the passage of time causes speakers of English and Mandarin to
habitually think about the passage of time in a different way. However,
although the results support the hypothetical theory, they do not suggest
that it is non-trivial. Whether an individual thinks of time as moving
vertically or horizontally has no effect on the use they can make of the
concept; both groups still perceive time as moving unidirectionally along a
continuum, thus there is no real restriction imposed by the language. As
Boroditsky herself states, ‘those aspects not constrained by our physical
experience with time are free to vary across languages and our
conceptions of them may be shaped by the way we choose to talk about
them’ (pp. 4), suggesting that non-trivial examples of LRH are unlikely to
exist. The difference in thought that Boroditsky uncovers is merely a
semantic quirk brought about through the logical application of a
unidirectional term, time, arbitrarily to either the vertical or horizontal
However, not all potential instances of LRH are so trivial. Object
classification by gender is one of these examples. Grammatical gender
assignment is arbitrary, not least shown by the fact that it arbitrarily
varies across languages. Thus, if speakers of different languages that have
different gender classifications think about the objects in a different way,
then LRH is vindicated; if it can be shown that the speakers of languages
that have such gender classifications ascribe qualities to such objects in
correlation with their gender type, then it appears that this must be due to
the language they use rather than any intrinsic qualities of the object
A fine example of such correlation can be found in Boroditsky (2003),
where Spanish and German speakers were asked to rate the similarities
between pictures of people, both males and females, and objects that had
opposite genders in each language. The test was performed in English, a
language without systematic gender classification, to ensure its non-
linguistic nature. Both groups rated the objects according to their
languages grammatical classifications; furthermore, when asked to
describe, for example, a ‘key,’ German speakers tended to ascribe
masculine words such as ‘hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated and useful’
in accordance with German gender classifications, whilst Spanish speakers
were more likely to use feminine words such as ‘golden, intricate, little,
lovely, shiny and tiny’ in accordance with Spanish gender classifications.
In summary, the study of Dani colour names suggests the LRH is
actually false due to the intra-cultural variation in terms. However, this is
surely because the Dani language is still developing, and as such is not
systematic or well established enough to systematically restrict thought.
As Boroditsky (2001) suggests, the language used to communicate a
thought must reflect fairly accurately the thought being expressed
(assuming that the speaker is articulate), if it does not the speaker will find
another way to express the thought more fully, either by prose or coinage.
By doing this, the certain limitation is removed from the language and the
instance of LRH is eliminated, suggesting that LRH cannot be non-trivial.
Study into the conception of time by speakers of different languages has
shown that systematic differences of the sort postulated by the hypothesis
do exist, but are trivial as they are only differences in the style of
perception of the concept; there is no difference in content, thus there is
no real or systematic difference. Study into spatial reasoning also supports
the hypothesis, but again more research needs to be performed to
determine whether such linguistic differences have any real effects on
thought for the hypothesis to be fully vindicated. However, observations
from gender classifications between languages provide strong support for
LRH as they are clearly non-trivial examples of linguistic relativity; rather
than mere instances, they involve differences in concepts brought about
by linguistic differences. In conclusion, the LRH is sound; whilst it is easy
to be distracted by trivial examples where linguistic differences merely
cause preferences for certain styles of reasoning, there are also examples
of real and systematic differences in thought between speakers of
different languages that vindicate the hypothesis.

Boroditsky, L. (2001). ‘Does Language Shape Thought? Mandarin and

English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time’. Cognitive Psychology, 43(1): 1-32.
Boroditsky, L. (2003). ‘Linguistic Relativity’. In L. Nadel (Ed.),
Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, (pp. 917-922). London: Macmillan.
Heider, E. (1972). ‘Probabilities, Sampling, and Ethnographic Method: The
Case of Dani Colour Names’. Man, 7(3): 448-466.
Pederson, E., Danziger, E., Wilkins, D., Levinson, S., Kita, S., & Senft, G.
(1998). ‘Semantic typology and spatial conceptualization’. Language,
74(3): 557–589.