Sincronía Spring 2006

Linguistic Relativity Revisited

Xochitl Soriano
Universidad de Guadalajara

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also known as "linguistic relativity". This theory basically claims that the way people think and the way they perceive reality are molded by their native language. Their thoughts are expressed in a particular way due to the structure of their first language.

There are two versions of the basic hypothesis. Some people call them "strong vs. weak" versions. According to Gordon Lyon, the strong version argues that

"…even primitive or fundamental aspects of thought

or perceptual experience, which we are inclined to

think that we have independently of any language

(such as perceptual experience, and our concepts of

time, matter and colour) are determined by the par-

ticular language that we have." (Lyon, 1999:519).

On the other hand, the weak version states that the language people speak influences and facilitates thinking and perception in particular ways. These two versions are also known as: linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism.

The Nietzche-Korzybski-Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

It is believed that Edward Sapir and later Benjamin Lee Whorf were the first researchers who started talking about linguistic determinism when in fact, there were other people. Robert Pula (1992) in his article "The Nietzsche-Korzybski-Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" brings a very interesting issue about the origin of the relatinship between language and thought. He suggested that Alfred Korzybski, a Polish American linguistic who developed the theory of General Semantics, had similar ideas to those of Whorf. General Semantics is the study of language as a representation of reality. According Britannica Enclyclopedia on Line, Korzybski and his followers searched for a "...scientific and non-Aristotetian basis for a clear understanding of the differences between symbol (word) and reality (referent) and the ways in which words themselves can influence, manipulate or limit human ability to think".   Pula quotes Korzybski saying that

"We do not realize what tremendus power the structure of

habitual language has. It is not an exageration to say that

it enslaves us through the mechanism of the semantic

reaction and that the structure which a language exhibits

and impresses upon us unconsciously is automatically

projected upon the world around us." (Korzybski in Pula,

1992: 52)

On the other hand, Pula says that Friedrich Nietzsche, a German classical scholar and philosopher, had similar ideas about language as those of Korzybski. However, he states that it is possible that both philosophers came to the same conclusion by themselves, since Korzybski claimed that he was not influenced by Nietzsche in any way. It is important to keep in mind that Nietzsche appeared before Korzybski. Pula suggests that Korzybski might have read Nitzsche in German. According to Pula, Nietzsche argued that the similarity in grammar different language can be explained easily. He says that "…the unconscious domination and guidance by similar grammatical functions- that everything is prepared at the outset for similar development and sequence of philosophical systems…" (Nietzsche in Pula, 1992:51). In the same article, he states the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and argues that due to the chronology in time and similarities in ideas, linguistic relativy should be referred as the Nietzsche-Korzybski-Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Following with idea of who is responsible for linguistic relativity, Ralph Carnes (1970),in his article "A Perceptual Model of the Whorfian Hypothesis," questions the extent of Sapir’s involvement in the development of the hypothesis. According to him, Sapir was more careful than Whorf in his statements about the relationship between language and thought. Sapir argued that once our perceptions reach a mental level, they are categorized into concepts which are related to each other by the nature of language. For Sapir, those concepts were symbolical representations "…from the world of experience: our real world is constructed from these concepts" (Carnes, 1970:55-56). As he said,

"If language classes either correspond to or

symbolize concept, then articulations within

a language system are vocal descriptions of the

real world …[then] the real world is an

abstraction of from the experiential world made

possible by language." (Carnes, 1970:56)

So according to Carnes, Sapir would argue that due to the differences in languages, there should also be differences in the "real worlds" of speakers from different languages. He also says that Whorf developed Sapir’s ideas further saying that language influenced thought. He claims that Sapir was cautions, it was Whorf the one who was more adventurous. Carnes says that for Whorf speakers perceive reality as a "Kaleidoscopic Flux of impressions [which] appears to be the first state of reaction…" (Carnes, 1970:62) of what the speaker perceives. According to Whorf, the structure of two different languages produces different thoughts in speakers making each one "…a separate and distinct system" (Carnes, 1970:63). If this is true, then it can be said that when translating from one language to another, the translation will miss some part of the message from the original language. Lyon (1999) agrees when he says that speakers’ choice of words are imposed on them due to the grammar or their native language.

This is also discussed by Hardin and Banaji in their article "The influence of language on thought". They say that the fact that certain words are available in one language but not in a different one may cause speakers and listeners to transmit and interpret the message with particular choices. According to Haiman (1993) Jacobson argued that languages were different "…not only in what they can say (in their pragmatic mode) but in the ars obligatoria of what they must say (in their fixed grammatical categories)." (Haiman, 1993:295). He goes further saying that the sounds of a given language cause its speakers "…to be sensitive to some articulatory and accoustic distinctions while remaining oblivious to others…" (Haiman, 1993:295). Hardin and Banaji provide with examples of studies in acoustic perception were sound discrimination among languages is used. Examples of these studies are the study carried out by Gandour and Harshman in 1978 with adult speakers of Thai, English and Yoruba; Miyawaki et al., (1975) Japanese and English speakers; Henley & Sheldon (1986) Zulu and English, etc. However, Hardin and Banaji were did an extensive analysis of the traditional memory color test.

According to them, researchers knew that color labels vary across languages and that color words are assigned in an arbitrary form to the color spectrum. They thought that they could find evidence to support linguistic relativity if "…correspondig differences in color recognition could be identified across linguistic communities…" (Hardin & Banaji, 1993:282). They said that the first study in color cognition was made by Brown and Lenneberg in 1954. This and other studies provided support for the week version of the hypothesis. In 1969, Berlin and Kay found a total of eleven basic color labels common in all languages. They observed that there are five categories in which colors would be recognized: 1-black and white, 2-red, 3 yellow, green and blue, 4-brown and 5- purple, orange and gray. According to them, colors would be identified in this order depending on the number of basic color terms in a language. On the other hand, Lyon (1999) in his article "Language and Perceptual Experience" argued that not having particular color labels in a language, does not keep the speaker from recognizing and appreciating the differences in shades and tones of colors. He says that humans possess the ability to discriminate not only colors, but tastes, sounds, feelings, etc, before they know the word they are labeled by. Lyon argues that the process of language learning is the one that affects our perception of reality, not that language is responsible for it.

Bing (1992) discussed a research studied carried by Khosroshahi in 1989 which supports the idea of Lyon but which also supports evidence for linguistic relativity. This study aimed to discover if the exposure to new forms of language changed subjects’ attitude towards sexist images. Fifty five subjects participated in this study. Twenty five of them had been exposed to reformed forms of the pronouns like "he or she" and "s/he" in their compositions. There were thirteen women and twelve men. The other thirty subjects (men and women) had never included reformed pronouns in their written works. The test consisted in reading paragraphs which final sentences were phrases like "… ‘An unhappy person could still have a smile on his face’ or ‘An unhappy person could still have a smile on his or her face’" (Bing, 1992:13). Readers asked subjects to draw and name the people from the readings. This was used to see weather subjects imagined the people to be men or women. The result was that most of the subjects imagined a man as the character in the reading. Only the women who had used reformed pronouns in their compositions drew more women but not in a bigger proportion. Bing argues that according to the results of Khosroshashi’s study prove that the use of reformed language can be related to differences in thought. Khosroshashi’s conclusion is "…that the degree to which new language is associated with new images depends in part on the depth of the underlying change of attitude." (Bing, 1992:13).

It can be said that there are two versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis known also as linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. The first one argues that language influences thought and the second one states that language determines thought. It is also important to notice that they were not the first ones to be concerned with linguistic relativity. However Sapir influenced Whorf, he was more cautions in his assertions.

There has been no study which has totally refuted the strong version; however, they provide evidence for the weak version. I believe that in order to produce the ideal study to test the hypothesis, researchers need to be more careful in the design and implementation and make clear what it is that they want to prove.


Bing, J (1992). Penguins can’t Fly and Women don’t Count: Language and Thought" Women and Language Vol. 15, No. 2 pp. 11 -14

Carners, R (1970). "A Perceptual Model of the Whorfian Thesis." ETC Review of General Semantics Vol. 27 No. 1 pp.55 - 65.

Davies, I, P. Sowden, D. Jerrett, T. Jerrett and G. Corbett (1998) "A Cross-cultural study of English and Setswana speakers on a colour triads task: A test of the Sapir -Whorf

hypothesis" British Journal of Psychology Vol. 89 No. 1 pp. 3 - 15.

Haiman, J (1993). "Life, the Universe, and Human Language." Language-Sciences, V15 No 4 p292 - 322.

Hardin, C. & M. Banaji (1993). "The Influence of Language on Thought." Social Cognition Vol. 11 No. 3 pp. 277 - 308.

Lyon, G (1999). "Language and Perceptual Experience." Philosophy Vol. 74, No. 290 pp. 515-534.

Pula, R (1992). "The Nietzche-Korzybski-Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?" ETC Review of General Semantics Vol. 49 No.1 Spring pp 50 - 57.

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