Since its inception in the 1920s and 1930s, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has caused controversy and spawned research in a variety of disciplines including linguistics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and education.
Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf brought attention to the relationship between language, thought, and culture. Neither of them formally wrote the hypothesis nor supported it with empirical evidence, but through a thorough study of their writings about linguistics, researchers have found two main ideas.
- a theory of linguistic determinism that states that the language you speak determines the way that you will interpret the world around you.
- a weaker theory of linguistic relativism that states that language merely influences your thoughts about the real world.
Edward Sapir studied the research of Wilhelm von Humboldt. About one hundred years before Sapir published his linguistic theories, Humboldt wrote in Gesammelte Werke a strong version of linguistic determinism:
“Man lives in the world about him principally, indeed exclusively, as language presents it to him.”
Sapir took this idea and expanded on it. Although he did not always support this firm hypothesis, his writings state that there is clearly a connection between language and thought.
“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression in their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection: The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. 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…Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.
…from The Status of Linguistics as a Science (1929)
Benjamin Lee Whorf was Sapir’s student. Whorf devised the weaker theory of linguistic relativity:
“We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe…”
“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. 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 impressions which has to be organized by our minds–and this means largely by the linguistic systems in 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. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.”
…from Science and Linguistics (1940/1956)
Both Sapir and Whorf agreed that it is our culture that determines our language, which in turn determines the way that we categorize our thoughts about the world and our experiences in it.
For more than fifty years researchers have tried to design studies that will support or refute this hypothesis. Support for the strong version has been weak because it is virtually impossible to test one’s world view without using language. Support for the weaker version has been minimal.
Problems with the hypothesis begin when one tries to discern exactly what the hypothesis is stating. Penn notes that the hypothesis is stated “more and less strongly in different places in Sapir’s and Whorf’s writings” (1972:13). At some points, Sapir and Whorf appear to support the strong version of the hypothesis and at others they only support the weak version. Alford (1980) also notes that neither Sapir nor Whorf actually named any of their ideas about language and cognition the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This name only appeared after their deaths. This has lead to a wide interpretation of what researchers consider to be the one and only hypothesis.
Another problem with the hypothesis is that it requires a measurement of human thought. Measuring thought and one’s world view is nearly impossible without the confounding influence of language, another of the variables being studied. Researchers settle for the study of behaviour as a direct link to thought.
If one is to believe the strong version of linguistic determinism, one also has to agree that thought is not possible without language. What about the pre-linguistic thought of babies? How can babies acquire language without thought? Also, where did language come from? In the linguistic determinist’s view, language would have to be derived from a source outside the human realm because thought is impossible without language and before language there would have been no thought.
Supporters of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis must acknowledge that their study of language in the “real world” is not without doubt if their language influences how they categorize what they seem to experience. Penn writes, “In short, if one believes in linguistic relativity, one finds oneself in the egocentric quandary, unable to make assertions about reality because of doubting one’s own ability to correctly describe reality” (1972:33).
Yet another problem with the hypothesis is that languages and linguistic concepts are highly translatable. Under linguistic determinism, a concept in one language would not be understood in a different language because the speakers and their world views are bound by different sets of rules. Languages are in fact translatable and only in select cases of poetry, humour and other creative communications are ideas “lost in the translation.”
One final problem researchers have found with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is Whorf’s lack of empirical support for his linguistic insights. Whorf uses language nuances to prove vast differences between languages and then expects his reader to infer those differences in thought and behaviour. Schlesinger attacks Whorf’s flimsy thesis support: “…the mere existence of such linguistic diversities is insufficient evidence for the parallelist claims of a correspondence between language on the one hand and cognition and culture, on the other, and for the determinist claim of the latter being determined by the former” (1991:18). Schlesinger also fails to see the connection between Whorf’s linguistic evidence and any cultural or cognitive data. “Whorf occasionally supplies the translations from a foreign language into English, and leaves it to the good faith of the reader to accept the conclusion that here must have been a corresponding cognitive or cultural phenomenon” (1991:27).
One infamous example Whorf used to support his theory was the number of words the Inuit people have for ‘snow.’ He claimed that because snow is a crucial part of their everyday lives and that they have many different uses for snow that they perceive snow differently than someone who lives in a less snow-dependent environment. Pullum has since dispelled this myth in his book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (1991). He shows that while the Inuit use many different terms for snow, other languages transmit the same ideas using phrases instead of single words.
Despite all these problems facing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, there have been several studies performed that support at least the weaker linguistic relativity hypothesis. In 1954, Brown and Lenneberg tested for colour codability, or how speakers of one language categorize the colour spectrum and how it affects their recognition of those colours. Penn writes, “Lenneberg reports on a study showing how terms of colours influence the actual discrimination. English-speaking subjects were better able to re-recognize those hues which are easily named in English. This finding is clearly in support of the limiting influence of linguistic categories on cognition” (1972:16).
Schlesinger explains the path taken in this study from positive correlation to support for linguistic relativity: “…if codability of colour affected recognisability, and if languages differed in codability, then recognisability is a function of the individual’s language” (1991:27)
Lucy and Shweder’s colour memory test (1979) also supports the linguistic relativity hypothesis. If a language has terms for discriminating between colour then actual discrimination/perception of those colours will be affected. Lucy and Shweder found that influences on colour recognition memory is mediated exclusively by basic colour terms–a language factor.
Kay and Kempton’s language study (1984) found support for linguistic relativity. They found that language is a part of cognition. In their study, English speakers’ perceptions were distorted in the blue-green area while speakers from Tarahumara–who lack a blue-green distinction–showed no distortion. However, under certain conditions they found that universalism of colour distinction can be recovered.
Peterson and Siegal’s “Sally doll” test (1995) was not intended to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis specifically, but their findings support linguistic relativity in a population who at the time had not yet been considered for testing–deaf children. Peterson and Siegal’s experiment with deaf children showed a difference in the constructed reality of deaf children with deaf parents and deaf children with hearing parents, especially in the realm of non-concrete items such as feelings and thoughts.
Most recently, Wassman and Dasen’s Balinese language test (1998) found differences in how the Balinese people orient themselves spatially to that of Westerners. They found that the use of an absolute reference system based on geographic points on the island in the Balinese language correlates to the significant cultural importance of these points to the people. They questioned how language affects the thinking of the Balinese people and found moderate linguistic relativity results.
There are, on the other hand, several studies that dispute the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Most of these studies favour universalism over relativism in the realm of linguistic structure and function. For example, Osgood‘s common meaning system study found that “human beings the world over, no matter what their language or culture, do share a common meaning system, do organize experience along similar symbolic dimensions” (1963:33)
In his universalism studies, Greenberg came to the conclusion that “agreement in the fundamentals of human behaviour among speakers of radically diverse languages far outweighs the idiosyncratic differences to be expected from a radical theory of linguistic relativity” (1963:125).
Alford‘s interpretation of Whorf shows that Whorf never intended for perception of the colour spectrum to be used to defend his principle of linguistic relativity. Alford states, “In fact, he is quite clear in stating that perception is clearly distinct from conception and cognition, or language-related thinking” (1980).
Even Dr. Roger Brown, who was one of the first researchers to find empirical support for the hypothesis, now argues that there is much more evidence pointing toward cognitive universalism rather than linguistic relativity (Schlesinger 1991:26).
Berlin and Kay’s colour study (1969) found universal focus colours and differences only in the boundaries of colours in the spectrum. They found that regardless of language or culture, eleven universal colour foci emerge. Underlying apparent diversity in colour vocabularies, these universal foci remain recognizable. Even in languages which do not discriminate to eleven basic colours, speakers are nonetheless able to sort colour chips based on the eleven focus colours.
Davies‘ cross-cultural colour sorting test (1998) found an obvious pattern in the similarity of colour sorting behaviour between speakers of English which has eleven basic colours, Russian which has twelve (they distinguish two blues), and Setswana which has only five (grue=green-blue). Davies concluded that the data showed strong universalism.
Culture influences the structure and functions of a group’s language, which in turn influences the individual’s interpretations of reality. Whorf saw language and culture as two inseparable sides of a single coin. According to Alford, “Whorf sensed something ‘chicken-and-egg-y’ about the language-culture interaction phenomenon” (1980). Indeed, deciding which came first the language or the culture is impossible to discern. Schlesinger notes that Whorf recognized two directions of influence–from culture to language and vice versa. However, according to Schlesinger, Whorf argues that “since grammar is more resistant to change than culture, the influence from language to culture is predominant” (1991:17).
Language reinforces cultural patterns through semantics, syntax and naming. Grammar and the forms of words show hierarchical importance of something to a culture. However, the common colour perception tests are not strongly linked to cultural experience. Schlesinger agrees: “Whorf made far-reaching claims about the pervasive effects of language on the mental life of a people, and all that experimental psychologists managed to come up with were such modest results as the effect of the vocabulary of a language on the discriminability of colour chips” (1991:30).
In 1955, Dr. James Cooke Brown attempted to separate language and culture to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He suggested the creation of a new language–one not bound to any particular culture – to distinguish the causes from the effects of language, culture, and thought. He called this artificial language LOGLAN, which is short for Logical Language. According to Riner, LOGLAN was designed as an experimental language to answer the question: “In what ways is human thought limited and directed by the language in which one thinks?” (1990).
Today with the help of the Internet, many people around the world are learning LOGLAN. Riner appears positive in the continuing work with LOGLAN to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:
“As far as we can yet know, LOGLAN can accommodate precisely and unambiguously the native ways of saying things in any natural language. In fact, because it is logically rigorous, LOGLAN forces the speaker to make the metaphysical (cultural, worldview) premises in and of the natural language explicit in rendering the thought into (disambiguated) LOGLAN. Those assumptions, made explicit, become propositions that are open for critical review and amendment–so not only can the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis be tested, but its details can be investigated with LOGLAN” (1990).
The linguistic relativity principle, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it. A strong version of the hypothesis holds that language determines thought that linguistic categories limits and determines cognitive categories. A weaker version states that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour.
The idea was first clearly expressed by 19th century national romantic thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt who saw language as the expression of the spirit of a nation. The early 20th century school of American Anthropology headed by Franz Boas and Edward Sapir also embraced the idea. Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf came to be seen as the primary proponent of the hypothesis, because he published observations of how he perceived linguistic differences to have consequences in human cognition and behaviour. Whorf’s ideas were widely criticised, and Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg decided to put them to the test. They reformulated Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity as a testable hypothesis, now called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and 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 in to focus in the 1960s the idea of linguistic relativity fell out of favor. A 1969 study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay showed that colour terminology is subject to universal semantic constraints, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was seen as completely discredited.
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 weak versions of the hypothesis in experimental contexts. Effects of linguistic relativity have been shown particularly in the domain of spatial cognition and in the social use of language, but also in the field of colour perception. Recent studies have shown that colour perception is particularly prone to linguistic relativity effects when processed in the left brain hemisphere, suggesting that this brain half relies more on language than the right one. 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 subject to universal factors. Current research is focused on exploring the ways in which language influences thought and determining to what extent. 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 works of fiction and the invention of constructed languages.
The idea that language and thought are intertwined goes back to the classical civilizations, but in the history of European philosophy the relation was not seen as fundamental. St. Augustine for example held the view that language was merely labels applied to already existing concepts. Others held the opinion that language was but a veil covering up the eternal truths hiding them from real human experience. For Immanuel Kant, language was but one of several tools used by humans to experience the world. In the late 18th and early 19th century the idea of the existence of different national characters, or “Volksgeister“, of different ethnic groups was the moving force behind the German school of national romanticism 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 very fabric of thought, that is that thoughts are produced as a kind of inner dialog using the same grammar as the thinker’s native language. 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.
The German scientist 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.
The idea that some languages were naturally superior to others and that the use of primitive languages maintained their speakers in intellectual poverty was widespread in the early 20th century. The American linguist William Dwight Whitney for example actively strove to eradicate the native American languages arguing that their speakers were savages and would be better off abandoning their languages and learning English and adopting a civilized way of life. The first anthropologist and linguist to challenge this view was Franz Boas who was educated in Germany in the late 19th century where he received his doctorate in physics. While undertaking geographical research in northern Canada he became fascinated with the Inuit people and decided to become an ethnographer. In contrast to Humboldt, Boas always stressed the equal worth of all cultures and languages, and argued that there was no such thing as primitive languages, but 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 being studied, and to document verbal culture such as myths and legends in the original language.
According to Franz Boas:
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.”
Boas’ student Edward Sapir reached back to the Humboldtian idea that languages contained the key to understanding the differing world views of peoples. In his writings he espoused the viewpoint that because of the staggering differences in the grammatical systems of languages no two languages were ever similar enough to allow for perfect translation between them. Sapir also thought because language represented reality differently, it followed that the speakers of different languages would perceive reality differently. According to Edward Sapir:
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.
On the other hand, Sapir explicitly rejected pure linguistic determinism, by stating that:
It would be naïve to imagine that any analysis of experience is dependent on pattern expressed in language.
While Sapir never made a point of studying how languages affected the thought processes of their speakers the notion of linguistic relativity lay inherent in his basic understanding of language, and it would be taken up by his student Benjamin Lee Whorf.
More than any other linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf has become associated with what he himself called “the principle of linguistic relativity”. Instead of merely assuming that language influences the thought and behavior of its speakers (after Humboldt and Sapir) he looked at Native American languages and attempted to account for the ways in which differences in grammatical systems and language use affected the way their speakers perceived the world. Whorf has been criticized by many, often pointing to his ‘amateur’ status, thereby insinuating that he was unqualified and could thereby be dismissed. However, his not having a degree in linguistics cannot be taken to mean that he was linguistically incompetent. Indeed, John Lucy writes “despite his ‘amateur’ status, Whorf’s work in linguistics was and still is recognized as being of superb professional quality by linguists”. Still, detractors such as Eric Lenneberg, Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker have criticized him for not being sufficiently clear in his formulation of how he meant languages influences thought, and for not providing actual proof of his assumptions. Most of his arguments were in the form of examples that were anecdotal or speculative in nature, and functioned 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.
Among Whorf’s well known examples of linguistic relativity are examples of instances where an indigenous language has several terms for a concept that is only described with one word in English and other 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 the less-studied languages). One of Whorf’s examples of this was the supposedly many words for ‘snow’ in the Inuit language, which has later been shown to be a misrepresentation but also for example how the Hopi language describes water with two different words for drinking water in a container versus 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 like snow or water, is not always possible.
Another example in which Whorf attempted to show that language use affects behavior came from his experience in his day job as a chemical engineer working for an insurance company as a fire inspector . On inspecting a chemical plant he once 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 due to the highly flammable vapors that still existed in the barrels. He concluded that the use of the word ‘empty’ in connection to the barrels had led the workers to unconsciously regarding them as harmless, although consciously they were probably aware of the risk of explosion from the vapors. This example was later criticized by Lenneberg  as not actually demonstrating the causality between the use of the word empty and the action of smoking, but instead being an example of circular reasoning. Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct ridiculed this example, claiming that this was a failing of human sight rather than language.
Whorf’s most elaborate argument for the existence of 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, the Hopi language 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 consequentially it does not have nouns referring to units of time. He proposed that this view of time was fundamental in all aspects of Hopi culture and explained certain Hopi behavioral patterns.
Whorf died in 1941 at age 44 and left behind him a number of unpublished papers. His line of thought was continued by linguists and anthropologists such as Harry Hoijer and Dorothy D. Lee who both continued investigations into the effect of language on habitual thought, and George L. Trager who prepared a number of Whorf’s left-behind papers for publishing. Hoijer, who was one of Sapir’s students, was also the first to use the term “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” about the complex of ideas about linguistic relativity expressed in the work of those two linguists. 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” edited by J. B. Carroll.
In 1953 psychologist Eric Lenneberg published a detailed criticism of the line of thought that had been fundamental for Sapir and Whorf. He criticized 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 different languages express these ideas in different ways, the meanings of such expressions and therefore the thoughts of the speaker are equivalent. He argued that when Whorf was describing in English how a Hopi speaker’s view of time was different, he was in fact translating the Hopi concept into English and therefore disproving the existence of linguistic relativity. He did not address the fact that Whorf was not principally concerned with translatability, but rather with how the habitual use of language influences habitual behavior. Whorf’s point was that while English speakers may be able to understand how a Hopi speaker thinks, they are not actually able to think in that way.
Lenneberg’s main criticism of Whorf’s works was that he had never actually shown the causality between a linguistic phenomenon and a phenomenon in the realm of thought or behavior, but merely assumed it to be there. Together with his colleague, Roger Brown, Lenneberg proposed that in order to prove such a causality one would have to be able to directly correlate linguistic phenomena with behavior. They took up the task of proving or disproving the existence of linguistic relativity experimentally and published their findings in 1954.
Since neither Sapir nor Whorf had ever stated an actual hypothesis, Brown & Lenneberg formulated one based on a condensation of the different expressions of the notion of linguistic relativity in their works. They identified the two tenets of the Whorf thesis as (i) “the world is differently experienced and conceived in different linguistic communities” and (ii) “language causes a particular cognitive structure”. These two tenets were later developed by Roger Brown into the so-called “weak” and “strong” formulation respectively:
1. 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.
2. The structure of anyone’s native language strongly influences or fully determines the worldview he will acquire as he learns the language.
It is these two formulations of Roger Brown’s which have become widely known and attributed to Whorf and Sapir while in fact the second formulation, verging on linguistic determinism, was never advanced by either of them.
Since Brown & Lenneberg believed that the objective reality denoted by language was the same for speakers of all language, 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 a number of 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 correlate the linguistic categorization directly to a non-linguistic task, that of recognizing and remembering colors. In a later experiment, speakers of two languages that categorize colors differently (English and Zuni) were asked to perform tasks of color recognition. 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 & Lenneberg in fact found that Zuñi speakers who classify green and blue together as a single category did have trouble recognizing and remembering nuances within the green/blue category. Brown & Lenneberg’s study became the beginning of a tradition of investigation of the linguistic relativity through color terminology (see below).
Lenneberg was also one of the first cognitive scientists to begin development of the Universalist theory of language which was finally formulated by Noam 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 – the knowledge acquired by learning a language – are merely surface phenomena and do not affect cognitive processes that are universal to all human beings. This theory became the dominant paradigm in American linguistics from the 1960s through the 1980s and the notion of linguistic relativity fell out of favor and became even the object of ridicule.
An example of the influence of universalist theory in the 1960s is the studies by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay who continued Lenneberg’s research in color terminology. Berlin and Kay studied color terminology formation in languages 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 John A. Lucy, who has argued that Berlin and Kay’s conclusions were skewed by their insistence that color terms should 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. For more information regarding the universalism and relativism of color terms, see Universalism and relativism of color terminology.
Other universalist researchers dedicated themselves to dispelling other notions of linguistic relativity, often attacking specific points and examples given by Whorf. For example, Ekkehart Malotki’s monumental study of time expressions in Hopi presented many examples that challenged Whorf’s interpretation of Hopi language and culture as being “timeless”.
Today many followers of the universalist school of thought still oppose the idea of linguistic relativity. For example, Steven Pinker argues in his book 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 universalist opponents of the linguistic relativity hypothesis have been accused by relativists of misrepresenting Whorf’s views and arguing against strawmen put up by themselves.
Joshua Fishman argued that Whorf’s true position was for a long time largely overlooked by most linguists. In 1978, he suggested that Whorf was a ‘neo-Herderian champion’ and in 1982, he proposed his ‘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 himself had expressed the sentiment 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.
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 different languages use different cultural metaphors that reveal something about how speakers of that language think. For example, English employs metaphors likening time with money, whereas other languages may not talk about time in that fashion. Other linguistic metaphors may be common to most languages because they are based on general human experience, for example, metaphors likening up with good and bad with down. Lakoff also argues that metaphor plays an important part in political debates where it matters whether one is arguing in favor of the “right to life” or against the “right to choose”; whether one is discussing “illegal aliens” or “undocumented workers”.
In his book Women, Fire and Dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind (1987), Lakoff reappraised the hypothesis of linguistic relativity and especially Whorf’s views about how linguistic categorization reflects and/or influences mental categories. He concluded that the debate on linguistic relativity had been confused and resultingly fruitless. He identified four parameters on which researchers differed in their opinions about what constitutes linguistic relativity. One parameter is the degree and depth of linguistic relativity. Some scholars believe that a few examples of superficial differences in language and associated behavior are enough to demonstrate the existence of linguistic relativity, while other contend that only deep differences that permeate the linguistic and cultural system suffice as proof. A second parameter is whether conceptual systems are to be seen as absolute or whether they can be expanded or exchanged during the life time of a human being. A third parameter is whether translatability is accepted as a proof of similarity or difference between concept systems or whether it is rather the actual habitual use of linguistic expressions that is to be examined. A fourth parameter is whether to view the locus of linguistic relativity as being in the language or in the mind. Lakoff concluded that since many of Whorf’s critics had criticized him using definitions of linguistic relativity that Whorf did not himself use, their criticisms were often ineffective.
The publication of the 1996 anthology Rethinking linguistic relativity edited by sociolinguist John J. Gumperz and psycholinguist Stephen C. Levinson marked the entrance to a new period of linguistic relativity studies and a new way of defining the concept that focused on cognitive as well as social aspects of linguistic relativity. The book included studies by cognitive linguists sympathetic to the hypothesis as well as some working in the opposing universalist tradition. In this volume, cognitive and social scientists laid out a new paradigm for investigations in linguistic relativity. Levinson presented research results documenting rather significant linguistic relativity effects in the linguistic conceptualization of spatial categories between different languages. Two separate studies by Melissa Bowerman and Dan I. 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 effects of linguistic relativity. Slobin on the other hand, described another kind of cognitive process that he named “thinking for speaking” – the kind of processes in which perceptional data and other kinds of prelinguistic cognition are translated into linguistic terms for the purpose of communicating them to others. These, Slobin argues, are the kinds of cognitive process that are at the root of linguistic relativity.
Current researchers such as cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University believe that language influences thought, but in more limited ways than the broadest early claims. Exploring these parameters has sparked novel research that increases both scope and precision of prior examinations. Current studies of linguistic relativity are neither marked by the naive approach to exotic linguistic structures and their often merely presumed effect on thought that marked the early period, nor are they ridiculed and discouraged as in the universalist period. Instead of proving or disproving a theory, researchers in linguistic relativity now examine the interface between thought, language and culture, and describe the degree and kind of interrelatedness. Usually, following the tradition of Lenneberg, they use experimental data to back up their conclusions.
John Lucy has identified three main strands of research into linguistic relativity. The first is what he calls the “structure centered” approach. This approach starts with observing a structural peculiarity in a language and goes on to examine its possible ramifications for thought and behavior. The first example of this kind of research is Whorf’s observation of discrepancies between the grammar of time expressions in Hopi and English. More recent research in this vein is the research made by John Lucy 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 speakers of English.
The second strand of research is the “domain centered” approach, in which a semantic domain is chosen and compared across linguistic and cultural groups for correlations between linguistic encoding and behavior. The main strand of domain centered research has been the research on color terminology, although this domain according to Lucy and admitted by color terminology researchers such as Paul Kay, is not optimal for studying linguistic relativity, because color perception, unlike other semantic domains, is known to be hard wired into the neural system and as such subject to more universal restrictions than other semantic domains. Since the tradition of research on color terminology is by far the largest area of research into linguistic relativity it is described below in its own section. Another semantic domain which has proven fruitful for studies of linguistic relativity is the domain of space. Spatial categories vary greatly between languages and recent research has shown that speakers rely on the linguistic conceptualization of space in performing many quotidian tasks. Research carried out by Stephen C Levinson and other cognitive scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has reported three basic kinds of spatial categorization and while many languages use combinations of them some languages exhibit only one kind of spatial categorization and corresponding differences in behavior. For example the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr only uses absolute directions when describing spatial relations — the position of everything is described by using the cardinal directions. A speaker of Guugu yimithirr will define a person as being “north of the house”, while a speaker of English may say that he is “in front of the house” or “to the left of the house” depending on the speaker’s point of view. This difference makes Guugu yimithirr speakers better at performing some kinds of tasks, such as finding and describing locations in open terrain, whereas English speakers perform better in tasks regarding the positioning of objects relative to the speaker (For example telling someone to set the table putting forks to the right of the plate and knives to the left would be extremely difficult in Guugu yimithirr).
The third strand of research is the “behavior centered” approach which starts by observing different behavior between linguistic groups and then proceeds to search for possible causes for that behavior in the linguistic system. This kind of approach was used by Whorf when he 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. One study in this line of research has been conducted by Bloom who noticed that speakers of Chinese had unexpected difficulties answering counter-factual questions posed to them in a questionnaire. After a study he concluded that this was related to the way in which counter-factuality is marked grammatically in the Chinese language. Another line of study by Frode 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 where Finnish factory organizers paid more attention to the individual worker.
Other research of importance to the study of linguistic relativity has been Daniel Everetts studies of the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon. Everett observed several peculiarities in Pirahã culture that corresponded with linguistically rare features. The Pirahã for example have neither numbers nor color terms in the way those are normally defined, and correspondingly they don’t count or classify colors in the way other cultures do. Furthermore when Everett tried to instruct them in basic mathematics they proved unresponsive. Everett did not draw the conclusion that it was the lack of numbers in their language that prevented them from grasping mathematics, but instead concluded that the Pirahã had a cultural ideology that made them extremely reluctant to adopt new cultural traits, and that this cultural ideology was also the reason that certain linguistic features that were otherwise believed to be universal did not exist in their language. Critics have argued that if the test subjects are unable to count for some other reason (perhaps because they are nomadic hunter/gatherers with nothing to count and hence no need to practice doing so) then one should not expect their language to have words for such numbers. That is, it is the lack of need which explains both the lack of counting ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary.
The tradition of using the semantic domain of color names as an object for investigation of linguistic relativity began with Lenneberg and Roberts 1953 study of Zuni color terms and color memory, and Brown and Lennebergs 1954 study of English color terms and color memory. The studies showed a correlation between the availability of color terms for specific colors and the ease with which those colors were remembered in both speakers of Zuni and English. Researchers concluded that this had to do with properties of the focal colors having higher codability than less focal colors, and not with linguistic relativity effects. Berlin and Kay’s 1969 study of color terms across languages concluded that there are universal typological principles of color naming that are determined by biological factors with little or no room for relativity related effects. This study sparked a long tradition of studies in to the typological universals of color terminology. Some researchers such as John A Lucy, Barbara Saunders and Stephen C Levinson have argued that Berlin and Kays study does not in fact show that linguistic relativity in color naming is impossible, because of a number of basic unsupported assumptions in their study (such as whether all cultures in fact have a category of “color” that can be unproblematically defined and equated with the one found in Indo-European languages) and because of problems with their data stemming from those basic assumptions. Other researchers such as Robert E. Maclaury have continued investigation into the evolution of color names in specific languages refining the possibilities of basic color term inventories. Like Berlin and Kay, Maclaury found no significant room for linguistic relativity in this domain, but rather as Berlin and Kay concluded that the domain is governed mostly by physical-biological universals of human color perception.
“In traditional scholarship concerning the intellectual roots of the so-called Sapir -Whorf Hypothesis’ — a term perhaps first used by Harry Hoijer (1904-1976) in 1954 in a paper at a conference devoted to the subject, but probably made more widely known through John B. Carroll’s (b. 1916) posthumous edition of Benjamin Lee Whorf s papers in 1956 (cf page 27) — these are traced largely, but not exclusively, to German language theory of the 17th (e.g., Leibniz) through the early 19th century, which, in Humboldt’s version, connects the ‘inner form’ of a language with the particularity of a world view of the nation that speaks it. This traditional view (surveyed in Koerner 1992) has recently been challenged by Joseph (1996) and, where Whorf’s work in general is concerned, by Lee (1996) in her monograph treatment of Whorfs ‘theory complex’ (especially Chapter 3). In this short paper the argument is made that these seemingly opposite positions concerning intellectual indebtnedness are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that an allowance should he made for the presence, latent or keenly felt, of two distinct but at least loosely connected layers of influence discernible in the work of North American linguists and anthropologists studying indigenous languages from Whitney to Whorf and his followers. So while the first, perhaps more general and less explicit kind of influence (at least where Whorf is concerned) derives from a fairly long-standing tradition in German philosophy of language, appropriate room should definitely be given to the more immediate sources of the idea that one’s native language determines individual and cultural patterns of thought which Joseph (1996) has documented so carefully, this idea held by Herder and, notably, by Humboldt (which he dubs the ‘magic key’ view), whereby language is seen as embodying the national mind and unfolding in line with the Romantic concept of history, in contrast to the other version (dubbed by him ‘metaphysical garbage’), which envisions language developing within an evolutionary view of history and which is seen as introducing obstacles to logical thought. This latter view, Joseph holds, appears to have been commonplace in Cambridge analytical philosophy, represented most prominently by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), and in Viennese logical positivism, reflected in the Work of Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). Joseph identifies Charles Kay Ogden (1889- 1957) as the key link between Cambridge and Vienna, whose influential book of 1923 The Meaning of Meaning, co-authored with Ivor Armstrong Richards (1893-1979), subtitled “The influence of language on thought and of the science of symbolism”, contains, Joseph demonstrates, many of the positions held by both Whorf and Sapir.
According to Joseph (1996), Sapir’s positive review of the same year of Ogden and Richards’ influential book marks a turning point from his view of language as a cultural product (as in his 1921 book Language, which incidentally was one of the works criticized in Ogden and Richards) to a sort of template around which the rest of culture is structured, as argued in his “The Status of Linguistics as a Science” (1929), This paper, Joseph suggests, like others of Sapir’s writings from 1923 on, takes up the rhetoric of ‘metaphysical garbage’ almost exclusively. Whorf in turn, drawn by Sapir to structuralism from originally mystical interests in language – beginning with his discovery in 1924 of the quasi-Cabbalistic writings of Antoine Fahre d’Olivet (1768-1825), likewise takes up this ‘garbage’ line, interweaving it with ‘magic key’ only in the two years between Sapir’s death and his own. Joseph in his important, indeed ground-breaking study on the subject — also investigates other influences on Whorf, for instance the writings of the analytic philosopher Count Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), founder of the General Semantics movement in the United States. As a result, my own paper, like my previous research on the subject, can be regarded as dealing more with part of the general intellectual climate that informed American scholarship during much of the 19th and the early 20th century, than with most of the direct, textually traceable sources, of the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that Joseph had identified.” pp. 1-2
From: E. F. K. Koerner – Towards a ‘full pedigree’ of the ‘Sapir-Whorf hipothesys’. From Locke to Lucy. In: Explorations in linguistic relativity. Edited by Pütz Martin and Verspoor Marjolijn H.John Benjamins 2000. pp. 1-24
“Early in the twentieth century, American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) inaugurated an important expansion of scientific investigation of the languages of native North America. As part of a broad critique of nineteenth-century evolutionary arguments he stressed the equal value of each language type and their independence from race and cultural level. He argued that each language necessarily represents an implicit classification of experience, that these classifications vary across languages, but that such variation probably has little effect on thought or culture.
His student Edward Sapir (1884-1939) accepted the main thrust of Boas’ position but came to feel that the closely knit system of categories in a language could represent incommensurable analyses of experience with effects on speakers’ conceptual view points and aesthetic interpretations. Gestalt and psychoanalytic psychology and Sapir’s own literary efforts also played a role in his thinking on this issue. Sapir’s concern was not with linguistic form as such (for example, whether a language uses inflections or not), nor with linguistic content or meaning as such (for example, whether a language could refer to a particular referent), but rather with the formal organization of meaning characteristic of a language, the regular ways meanings are constructed (for example, grammatical categories and patterns of semantic composition). Despite the suggestiveness of his formulation, Sapir provided few specific illustrations of the sorts of influences he had in mind.
Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), a gifted amateur linguist independently interested in these issues as they related to the nature of science, came into contact with Sapir in 1930 and began developing these views to a more systematic way. He analysed particular linguistic constructions, proposed mechanisms of influence, and provided empirical demonstrations of such influences on belief and behavior. However, his views on this issue are known to us largely through letters, unpublished manuscripts and popular pieces, which has led to considerable debate about his actual position. In this context, the one article on this issue prepared for a professional audience must be given special weight (see Whorf 1956). (1)Whorf argued that each language refers to an infinite variety of experiences with a finite array of formal categories (both lexical and grammatical) by trouping experiences together as analogically ‘the same’ for the purposes of speech. These categories also interrelate in a coherent way, reinforcing and complementing one another, so as to constitute an overall interpretation of experience. Languages vary considerably not only in the basic distinctions they recognize, but also in the assemblage of thesecategories into a coherent system of reference. Thus the system of categories which each language provides to its speakers is not a common, universal system, but one peculiar to the individual language, and one which makes possible a particular ‘fashion of speaking’.
But speakers tend to assume that the categories and distinctions of their language are natural, given by external reality. Further, speakers make the tacit error of assuming that elements of experience which are classed together on one or another criterion for the purposes of speech are similar in other respects as well. The crux of Whorf’s argument is that these linguistic categories are used as guides in habitual thought. When speakers attempt to interpret an experience in terms of a category available in their language they automatically involve the other meanings implicit in that particular category (analogy) and in the overall configuration of categories in which it is embedded. And speakers regard these other meanings as being intrinsic to the original experience rather than a product of linguistic analogy. Thus, language does not so much blind speakers to some obvious reality, but rather it suggests associations which are not necessarily entailed by experience. Ultimately, these shaping forces affect not only everyday habitual thought but also more sophisticated philosophical and scientific activity. In the absence of another language (natural or artificial) with which to talk about experience, speakers will be unlikely to recognize the conventional nature of their linguistically based understandings.”
(1) “The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language” (1939) reprinted in B. L. Whorf Language, thought, and reality. Selected writings. Cambridge: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1956 pp. 134-159).
From: John A. Lucy – Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – in: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Craig Edward. London, New York: Routledge 1998 pp. 471.
“The original idea, variously attributable to Humboldt, Boas, Sapir, Whorf, was that the semantic structures of different languages might be fundamentally incommensurable, with consequences for the way in which speakers of specific languages might think and act. On this view, language, thought, and culture are deeply interlocked, so that each language might be claimed to have associated with it a distinctive world view.
These ideas captured the imagination of a generation of anthropologists, psychologists, and linguists, as well as members of the general public. They had deep implications for the way anthropologists should conduct their business, suggesting that translational difficulties might lie at the heart of their discipline. However, the ideas seemed entirely and abruptly discredited by the rise of the cognitive sciences in the 1960s, which favoured a strong emphasis on the commonality of human cognition and its basis in human genetic endowment. This emphasis was strengthened by developments within linguistic anthropology, with the discovery of significant semantic universals in color terms, the structure of ethno-botanical nomenclature, and (arguably) kinship terms.
However, there has been a recent change of intellectual climate in psychology, linguistics, and other disciplines surrounding anthropology, as well as within linguistic anthropology, towards an intermediate position, in which more attention is paid to linguistic and cultural difference, such diversity being viewed within the context of what we have learned about universals (features shared by all languages and cultures). New work in developmental psychology, while acknowledging underlying universal bases, emphasizes the importance of the socio-cultural context of human development. Within sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology there has also been increasing attention to meaning and discourse, and concomitantly a growing appreciation of how interpretive differences can be rooted as much in the systematic uses of language as in its structure.”
“The boldness of Whorf’s formulation prompted a succession of empirical studies in America in the 1950s and early 1960s aimed at elucidating and testing what now became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Anthropological and linguistic studies by Trager, Hoijer, Lee, Casagrande, and others have been well reviewed elsewhere (see Lucy Language diversity and thought. A reformulation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis chapter 3; and this volume). These studies hardly touched on cognition, but in the same period a few psychologists (notably Lenneberg, Brown, Stefflre) did try to investigate the relation between lexical coding and memory, especially in the domain of color, and found some significant correlations (again see Lucy chapter 5). This line of work culminated, however, in the celebrated demonstration by Berlin & Kay (1969) of the language-independent saliency of “basic colors,” which was taken as a decisive anti-relativist finding, and effectively terminated this tradition of investigations into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. There followed a period in which Whorf’s own views in particular became the butt of extensive criticism.
It is clear from this background that the “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis in its classical form arose from deep historical roots but in a particular intellectual climate. Even though (it has been closely argued by Lucy op. cit.) the original hypothesis has never been thoroughly tested, the intellectual milieu had by the 1960s entirely changed. Instead of empiricism, we now have rationalistic assumptions. Instead of the basic tenets of structuralism, in which each linguistic or social system must be understood first in internal terms before comparison is possible, modern comparative work (especially in linguistics) tends to presume that one can isolate particular aspects or traits of a system (e.g. aspect or subjecthood) for comparison. The justification, such as it is, is that we now have the outlines of a universal structure for language and perhaps cognition, which provides the terms for comparison. It is true that the assumption of unconscious processes continues, but now the emphasis is on the unconscious nature of nearly all systematic information processing, so that the distinctive character of Whorf’s habitual thought has been submerged.
In this changed intellectual climate, and in the light of the much greater knowledge that we now have about both language and mental processing, it would be pointless to attempt to revive ideas about linguistic relativity in their original form. Nevertheless, there have been a whole range of recent intellectual shifts that make the ground more fertile for some of the original seeds to grow into new saplings. It is the purpose of this volume to explore the implications of some of these shifts in a number of different disciplines for our overall view of the relations between language, thinking, and society.
From: John J. Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson – Rethinking linguistic relativity – Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996, pp. 2-3 and 6-7 (notes omitted).
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