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Kevin Hu

SLS 20: Psychological Science

Section 1.2: Samuel Mehr, Tu 5-6
29 March 2015

Linguistic Relativity

Abstract: Linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, is the theory that

language influences thought. First formally examined by Benjamin Lee Whorf (1940),
the theory was then somewhat undermined by psychologists and other linguists
(Pinker, 1994, and Lyons, 1970), who believed that language was universal, and as
such, could not create discrepancies in the ability to think; however, more recently,
studies of how different cultures think differently have shown evidence that in fact a
weak form of linguistic relativity may hold true: that language can indeed influence
thought in several, but not necessarily all, domains of thought (Gordon, 2004, and
Boroditsky et al, 2010).

A Brief History of the Linguistic Relativity Debate

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression

for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make
all other modes of thought impossible (Orwell, 1949). In his famous book, Nineteen

Eighty-Four, Orwell writes of brainwashing the citizens of a fictional dystopian

England through the alteration on their language. Is this truly possible?
Many such questions of the effects of language on thought stem from the work
and ideas of linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who ignited controversial debate in his
study of the Hopi culture and language (Whorf & Carroll, 1956). Whorf introduced the
idea of linguistic relativity, noting that no individual is free to describe nature with
absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while
he thinks himself most free (Whorf, 1940). Whorf believed that due to peoples use
of language as a means of communication, the specific language may govern what
people can communicate, and perhaps what people can think.
However, after Whorf introduced this idea, prominent researchers from various
scientific fields studied and wrote against it, including psychologist Steven Pinker
(1994) and computational linguist Noam Chomsky (Lyons, 1970). These researchers
believed instead in universalism that language is universal to human beings, and
that, as such, linguistic relativity is impossible.
Recently, new interest in linguistic relativity has sparked studies that show that
linguistic relativity may be true to a weak extent. Numerical cognition studies of other
cultures (Gordon, 2004) and studies of patio-temporal perception differences across
languages (Boroditsky et al, 2010) suggest that there are indeed some domains in
which language may influence thinking.

Whorf and his Hypothesis

In order to examine how differences in language related to differences in

thought, Whorf studied the Hopi Native American people, comparing their language
with what he called Standard Average European (SAE), a family of languages with
characteristic grammatical similarities that included Romance and West Germanic
languages (Whorf, 1941).
The Hopi language characterizes time in a different way than SAE languages
do (Whorf, 1941). According to Whorf (1941), in SAE languages, speakers apply
plurality and cardinal numbers to both real plurals and imaginary plurals (e.g. ten
men and ten days), whereas the Hopi language only applies cardinality to real
plurals. This can lead to an objectification of time in SAE languages, but not so in the
Hopi language. For example, as Whorf (1941) describes, it is acceptable to claim that
ten days is greater than nine days; this would be nonsensical in the Hopi language,
which would instead have the equivalent the tenth day is later than the ninth day.
While SAE speakers view a length of time as a measurable length, Hopi speakers
view a length of time as a relation between two events (Whorf, 1941).
Hopi language also views time as a cycle, while SAE languages evoke a
sense of space to represent time (Whorf, 1941). A speaker of an SAE language could
use the phrase in the morning, suggesting that the morning is some space,
potentially measurable (duration), while a speaker of Hopi language would use the
phrase during the morning phase, suggesting that the morning is part of a cycle.

Whorf (1941) argued that these differences in languages could lead to

differences in thought, and illustrated certain examples of differences in behavior
regarding time. He had showed two facts: that the Hopi people speak differently
about time than SAE speakers, and that they think differently about time than SAE
speakers. To Whorf (1941), this correlation also implied that language causes
differences in thought.


While Whorf did identify linguistic differences between the Hopi language and
SAE languages, he sometimes deemed minor differences in language as complete
differences instead of viewing them as subtly deviant. For example, he wrote that the
Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, construction or
expressions that refer directly to what we call time, or to past, present, or
future (Whorf, 1941). However, the linguist Ekkehard Malotki (1983) found that the
Hopi language contains a realis and a irrealis mood, in which the realis mood is
used to communicate regarding events that have happened or are happening, while
the irrealis mood is used to communicate regarding events that will happen.
Essentially, the Hopi languages combines the SAE ideas of a past tense and present
tense into the realis mood, and uses the irrealis mood for the SAE idea of a future
tense. This undermines Whorfs study by showing that some of the differences
between the Hopi and SAE languages that were central to his argument were
perhaps not as great of differences as he suggested.



In the 20th century, computational linguistics grew rapidly as an important

subfield of linguistics. Noam Chomsky, one of its fathers, was highly interested in the
theory of linguistic relativism, and argued against it, claiming that Whorfs central idea
of differences in languages was flawed; Chomsky believed that language is universal,
such that the brain has an innate ability to learn grammar, and is trained on specific
social and cultural data in order to generate a language (Chomsky, 2007). This,
combined with his belief (2007) as a generative grammarian that meaning is derived
from the order of words, implied that people understand meaning in a universal
Thus, while languages are certainly different, their differences are on a
superficial level. Chomsky (2007), with this theory of linguistic nativism, or the
Universal Grammar, believed that the human cognitive abilities evolved to process
language were used only for processing language, and as such, could not interfere
with other cognitive abilities, contrary to the relativist idea that language affects
perception and thought.


The cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker was also critical of the theory
of linguistic relativism. Pinker (1994) expanded on Chomskys idea of a Universal
Grammar, giving examples of spontaneously invented languages, or creoles, by
children in mixed-culture populations, and the grammar of invented sign languages
by deaf infants.
From the cognitive science perspective, Pinker also shows that brain damage
can cause language impairment and a failure to process grammar such as Broca's
aphasia and Wernickes aphasia (Pinker, 1994). This, he argues, suggests that there
are natural components of the brain that evolved and correspond to grammar
construction and comprehension.
As such, similarly to how Chomsky argued, Pinker believed that language and
grammar processing could not majorly influence perception and thought that the
strong hypothesis of linguistic relativism was untrue.

Weak Linguistic Relativism

While most modern linguists now believe the strong form of linguistic relativism
that language determines thought, known as linguistic determinism is untrue,
there is considerable evidence for a weaker form of linguistic relativism that
language can influence thought in certain domains.

Numerical Cognition of the Pirah Tribe

The Pirah people, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe in the Amazon

rainforest, count numbers differently from speakers of most standard European
languages. Whereas most standard European languages use some modification of a
number-base counting system, where integers can be uniquely exactly expressed,
the Pirah language only has terms for one, two, and many, expressing any
quantity more than two (Gordon, 2004).
The Pirah language does not include recursion that is, the number three
would not be expressed as a combination of one and two, and so forth and
although speakers would supplement oral communications by displaying
enumerations with their fingers, these enumerations were highly inaccurate, even for
small numbers (Gordon, 2004). Gordon (2004) assigned numerical tasks to members
of the Pirah tribe, and found that numerical cognition was strongly negatively
impacted by their inexact and incomplete number system.
This study shows that numerical cognition can indeed by influenced by
language the inability to express large integers in language can result in reliance
on poor estimation when enumerating, resulting in inaccuracy.

Spatio-temporal Metaphors in Mandarin

English and Mandarin speakers both use horizontal spatial terms to

communicate relative time (Boroditsky et al, 2010). For example, in English, we can

look forward in time and look back in time; science fiction characters travel forward
and backward in time. In Mandarin, qin tin, literally front day, refers to the day
before yesterday, while hu tin, literally back day, refers to the day after tomorrow.
However, Mandarin speakers can also use vertical spatial terms to
communicate relative time (Boroditsky et al, 2010). Xi ge yu, literally down a
month, refers to the next month, whereas shng ge yu, literally up a month, refers
to the previous month. Roughly 36% of the spatial metaphors for time in Mandarin
are vertical, while English has very few vertical spatial terms for relative time
(Boroditsky et al, 2010).
In their study, Boroditsky et al (2010) asked subjects to arrange time points
spatially, with before and after buttons adjacent either horizontally or vertically.
Theoretically, if Mandarin speakers think of time vertically in addition to horizontally
while English speakers do not, then English speakers would face greater interference
when attempting to quickly arrange time points spatially if the before and after
buttons were adjacent vertically. The researchers found this to indeed be true at a
statistically significant level (2010).
This suggests that English and Mandarin speakers perceive relative time
differently. While Mandarin speakers are comfortable arranging earlier events as
above later events or as left of later events, English speakers are only comfortable
arranging earlier events as left of later events. It is quite conceivable that this is a
result of linguistic differences between English and Mandarin, in which Mandarin
speakers frequently use vertical spatial metaphors for relative time in addition to

horizontal spatial metaphors, whereas English speakers almost always use horizontal
spatial metaphors for relative time (Boroditsky et al, 2010).


Does language influence thought? Whorf (1940) believed it does; Chomsky

(2007) and Pinker (1994) objected to linguistic determinism; and new research
(Gordon, 2004, and Boroditsky et al, 2010) suggests that language can influence
certain domains of thought, such as numerical cognition and spatio-temporal
Ultimately, it appears that language does indeed influence some aspects of
thought. No extreme view on linguistic relativism seems to hold true Chomsky
(2007) and Pinker (1994) argue that language does not determine thought, based on
the innateness of grammar and language acquisition, while Gordon (2004) and
Boroditsky et al (2010) show some promise in how language can affect perception
and thought.
Finding which domains in which linguistic relativism holds true is a challenging
but exciting task facing linguists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists in the future
perhaps finding some common thread between these domains may hold a key to
more comprehensively understanding language and the mind.


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