Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis

The linguistic relativity hypothesis is the proposal that the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality. The hypothesis joins two claims. First, languages differ significantly in their interpretations of experience -- both what they select for representation and how they arrange it. Second, these interpretations of experience influence thought when they are used to guide or support it. Because the first claim is so central to the hypothesis, demonstrations of linguistic differences in the interpretation of experience are sometimes mistakenly regarded as demonstrations of linguistic relativity and demonstrations of some commonalities are taken as disproof, but the assessment of the hypothesis necessarily requires evaluating the cognitive influence of whatever language differences do exist. Accounts vary in the proposed mechanisms of influence and in the power attributed to them -- the strongest version being a strict linguistic determinism (based, ultimately, on the identity of language and thought). Linguistic relativity proposals should be distinguished from more general concerns about how speaking any natural language whatsoever influences thinking (e.g., the general role of language in human intellectual functioning) and discourse-level concerns with how using language in a particular way influences thinking (e.g., schooled versus unschooled). Ultimately, however, all these levels interrelate in determining how language influences thought.

Interest in the intellectual significance of the diversity of language categories has deep roots in the European tradition (Aarsleff 1982). Formulations related to contemporary ones appeared in England (Locke), France (Condillac, Diderot), and Germany (Hamman, Herder) near the beginning of the eighteenth century. They were stimulated by opposition to the universal grammarians, by concerns about the reliability of language-based knowledge, and by practical efforts to consolidate national identities and cope with colonial expansion. Work in the nineteenth century, notably that of Humboldt in Germany and SAUSSURE in Switzerland and France, drew heavily on this earlier tradition and set the stage for contemporary approaches. The linguistic relativity proposal received new impetus and reformulation in America during the early twentieth century in the work of anthropological linguists SAPIR (1949) and Whorf (1956) (hence the common designation as "the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis"). They emphasized direct study of diverse languages and rejected the hierarchical rankings of languages and cultures characteristic of many European approaches.

Despite enduring philosophical interest in the question (e.g., Quine 1960), there has been little empirical research that both compares linguistic meaning structures and then independently assesses thought (Lucy 1992a). This stems partly from the interdisciplinary nature of the problem and partly from concern about the implications of relativism and determinism. Empirical efforts fall into three broad types.

1. Structure-centered approaches begin with an observed difference between languages, elaborate the interpretations of reality implicit in them, and then seek evidence for their influence on thought. The approach remains open to unexpected interpretations of reality but often has difficulty establishing a neutral basis for comparison. The classic example of a language-centered approach is Whorf's pioneering comparison of Hopi and English (1956) in which he argues for different conceptions of 'time' in the two languages as a function of whether cyclic experiences are classed as like ordinary objects (English) or as recurrent events (Hopi). The most extensive recent effort to extend and improve the comparative fundamentals in a structure-centered approach has sought to establish a relation between variations in grammatical number marking and attentiveness to number and form (Lucy 1992b).

2. Domain-centered approaches begin with a domain of experienced reality, typically characterized independently of language(s), and ask how various languages select from and organize it. The approach facilitates controlled comparison but often at the expense of regimenting the linguistic data rather narrowly. The classic example of this approach shows that some colors are more lexically encodable than others and that more codable colors are remembered better (Brown and Lenneberg 1954). This approach was later extended to argue that there are cross linguistic universals in the encoding of the color domain such that a small number of "basic" color terms emerge in languages as a function of biological constraints (Berlin and Kay 1969). This research has been widely accepted as evidence against the linguistic relativity hypothesis, although it actually deals with constraints on linguistic diversity. Subsequent research has challenged the universal claim and shown that different color term systems do influence COLOR CATEGORIZATION and memory. The most successful effort to improve the quality of the linguistic comparison in a domain-centered approach has sought to show cognitive differences in the spatial domain between languages favoring the use of body coordinates to describe arrangements of objects (e.g., the man is left of the tree) and those favoring systems anchored in cardinal direction terms or topographic features (e.g., the man is east/uphill of the tree; Levinson 1996).

3. Behavior-centered approaches begin with a marked difference in behavior that the researcher comes to believe has its roots in a pattern of thinking arising from language practices. The behavior at issue typically has clear practical consequences (either for theory or for native speakers), but because the research does not begin intending to address the linguistic relativity question, the theoretical and empirical analyses of language and reality are often weak. An example of a behavior-centered approach is the effort to account for differences in Chinese and English speakers' facility with counterfactual or hypothetical reasoning by reference to the marking of counterfactuals in the two languages (Bloom 1981).

The continued relevance of the linguistic relativity issue seems assured by the same impulses found historically: the patent relevance of language to human sociality and intellect, the reflexive concern with the role of language in intellectual method, and the practical encounter with diversity.

See also

Additional links

-- John A. Lucy


Aarsleff, H. (1982). From Locke to Saussure. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Berlin, B., and P. Kay. (1969). Basic Color Terms. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bloom, A. H. (1981). The Linguistic Shaping of Thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Brown, R. W., and E. H. Lenneberg. (1954). A study in language and cognition. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49:454-462.

Levinson, S. C. (1996). Relativity in spatial conception and description. In J. J. Gumperz and S .C. Levinson, Eds., Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lucy, J. A. (1992a). Language Diversity and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lucy, J. A. (1992b). Grammatical Categories and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quine, W. (1960). Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sapir, E. (1949). The selected writings of Edward Sapir. In D.G. Mandelbaum, Ed., Language, Culture, and Personality. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, J. B. Carroll, Ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Further Readings

Aarsleff, H. (1988). Introduction. In W. von Humboldt, Ed., On Language: The Diversity of Human Language-Structure and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind, trans. by P. Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grace, G. W. (1987). The Linguistic Construction of Reality. London: Croom Helm.

Gumperz, J. J., and S. C. Levinson, Eds. (1996). Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hardin, C. L., and L. Maffi, Eds. (1997). Color Categories in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hill, J. H., and B. Mannheim. (1992). Language and world view. Annual Review of Anthropology 21:381-406.

Hunt, E., and F. Agnoli. (1991). The Whorfian Hypothesis: a cognitive psychology perspective. Psychological Review 98:377-389.

Kay, P., and C. K. McDaniel. (1978). The linguistic significance of the meanings of basic color terms. Language 54:610-646.

Koerner, E. F. K. (1992). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: a preliminary history and a bibliographic essay. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2:173-178.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lee, P. (1997). The Whorf Theory Complex: A Critical Reconstruction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Levinson, S. C. (1997). From outer to inner space: linguistic categories and nonlinguistic thinking. In J. Nuyts and E. Pederson, Eds., The Relationship between Linguistic and Conceptual Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lucy, J. A. (1996). The scope of linguistic relativity: an analysis and review of empirical research. In J. J. Gumperz and S. C. Levinson, Eds., Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lucy, J. A. (1997). Linguistic relativity. Annual Review of Anthropology 26:291-312.

Lucy, J. A., and R. A. Shweder. (1979). Whorf and his critics: linguistic and nonlinguistic influences on color memory. American Anthropologist 81:581-615.

Putnam, H. (1981). Philosophical Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schultz, E. A. (1990). Dialogue at the Margins: Whorf, Bakhtin, and Linguistic Relativity. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Silverstein, M. (1979). Language structure and linguistic ideology. In P. Clyne, W. Hanks, and C. Hofbauer, Eds., The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Wierzbicka, A. (1992). Semantics, Culture, and Cognition: Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.