Linguistic determinism posits that language determines the way a person sees the world.
The structure of a specific language and the customary practices in its use affect how the world is categorized, shapes memory, and affects perception.
According to linguistic determinism, because an individual’s native language affects their thought processes and worldview, then people will have different perspectives based on their native language.
As the famous linguist Benjamin lee Whorf (1956) stated, “We dissect nature along lines laid out by our native language” (p. 213).
Origins of Linguistic Determinism
Early notions that language shapes an individual’s thought processes and worldview can be traced to the writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835).
An edited version of one his writings appeared in the introduction of the book “The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind.”
The essay has been credited with laying the foundation for linguistic determinism and a later, milder version of this philosophical orientation known as linguistic relativity.
Today, the strong version of linguistic determinism is less popular among scholars.
It has been supplanted by the milder linguistic relativity, often referred to as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, and credited to Edward Sapir and Whorf.
Unfortunately, this is an inaccurate term because the two scholars never co-authored a statement regarding the distinction between linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity.
Linguistic Determinism vs Linguistic Relativity
The fundamental difference between linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity is that determinism more rigidly holds to the belief that language shapes thought; while relativity accepts more levels of human agency.
Determinism is the strong version of the notion that language affects meaning and perception, hence the root of the term “determine.”
An individual’s understanding of the world is trapped in the perspective that the language enforces.
However, linguistic relativity is more flexible. Proponents prefer to use words such as “shapes” and “influences” instead of “determines.” This flexibility acknowledges that other factors can shape meaning and that language is not the sole factor.
Relativists often point to cultural factors that shape meaning as evidence that a more flexible version of linguistic determinism is appropriate.
As quoted in Brumer (1961), Sapir wrote:
“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 for their society…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. . . We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” (p. 57).
Linguistic Determinism Examples
- Spanish Gender Pronouns: The Spanish language has a different word for whether referring to a group (they), depending on if they are men or women: “ellos” or “ellas,” respectively.
- In Color Labelling: Some languages do not make a distinction between specific shades of a particular color.
- 50 Words for Snow: The word “aqilokoq” means “softly falling snow,” while “piegnartoq” refers to “snow good for driving sled.”
- Language Shapes Expressiveness: Some people that are normally quite reserved and calm might notice that they become much more expressive when speaking Spanish.
- Cornish words for “hill”: While the word “hill” in English refers to a rounded natural elevation of land lower than a mountain, the Cornish language has at least 8 words for different types and features of hills. “Mulvra” refers to a round-topped hill and “godolgh” is a very small hill.
- “Think” and “Know”: The metacognitive distinction between “thinking” and “knowing” does not exist in very young children until their cognitive-linguistic development has reached a certain milestone.
- Grading Foreign Essays: A native English-speaking professor might have trouble understanding an academic paper written by Asian students because logic in the English language progresses in a linear fashion, whereas many Asian students present arguments that seem circular.
- Missing the Bus: The Hopi language spoken by native American Indians does not conceptualize “time” as being divided into measurable units, which makes adhering to rigid schedules so prominent in English-speaking cultures difficult to understand.
- In International Business Negotiations: Having two completely different worldviews that have been shaped by deeply ingrained linguistic parameters can make international partnerships extremely difficult.
- Newspeak: George Orwell’s 1984 described how the totalitarian government restricted linguistic use to make it nearly impossible to even think about rebelling and forcing citizens to adopt its political ideology.
1. Color Perception
Physiologically speaking, color stimuli impact the rods and cones in the retina the same in all human beings.
The boundaries between one color and another exist on a continuum that are so seamless that they can be imperceptible. Those boundaries are only defined linguistically, not physically or physiologically.
As Hussein (2020) argues
“Undoubtedly the human eye perceives the colors of the world around it according to the same physiological mechanism regardless of the differences of our languages, races and cultures…we differ linguistically only in the naming context within which we use various lexical names to call various color degrees” (Hussein, 2020, p. 17).
2. Language and Cognitive Development
There are numerous examples in developmental psychology that support a strong version of linguistic determinism.
These examples come directly from research examining children of different ages and how their understanding of the world is dependent on reaching a certain cognitive developmental milestone.
For example, Moore et al. (1995) found that children aged three years old were unable to distinguish between the concepts of “want” and “need,” whereas four- and five-year-olds were more likely to understand the difference.
This illustrates how linguistic capability, bound by cognitive development, limits understanding.
3. The Pirahã Language
Everett and Madora (2012) studied a South American Amazonian tribe that spoke the Pirahã language.
Various members of the tribe were presented with number-matching tasks. The results revealed that members of the tribe were incapable of distinguishing between numbers larger than three.
The researchers concluded that it was the limited vocabulary of the language that prevented them from understanding the numerical concepts.
“The most plausible motivation for this difficulty is, we believe, that they do not have access to the crucial ‘‘conceptual tool’’ of number terminology” (p. 140).
Criticisms of Linguistic Determinism
1. Thinking without Language
Wynn (1992) demonstrated that human infants were capable of performing mental calculations without the benefits of language.
Infants were presented with different scenes involving a doll (Mickey Mouse). The scene displayed to the infants changed. For some infants, the scenes changed in a numerically logical sequence. That is, seeing one doll, then witnessing another being added, should equal two dolls revealed in the final scene.
For other infants, the scenes changed in a numerically illogical sequence. That is, seeing one doll, then witnessing another being added, but the final scene displaying only one doll.
The results revealed that infants “looked longer at the incorrect outcome” (p. 749).
This means that infants can perform “numerical relationships between small numbers, and can manipulate these concepts in numerically meaningful ways” (p. 150).
In regards to ramifications for linguistic determinism, the results indicate that infants can perform mental calculations long before they possess the linguistic terminology needed for mathematical operations of addition and subtraction.
2. The Pirahã Language II
It is often the case that the findings of a particular published paper can support competing theories. This is the case with studies involving the Amazonian tribe mentioned above.
Laurence and Margolis (2007) report on the findings of previous research by Gordon (2004) in which the researcher attempted to teach members of the tribe words for counting above three using Portuguese. Apparently, those attempts failed.
There has since been considerable debate regarding the efficacy of the training, motivation of the tribe, or genetic abnormalities.
However, as Laurence and Margolis point out, linguistic determinism would assert that:
“teaching them number words in conjunction with the cultural practice of counting ought to give them just what they need to acquire concepts of natural numbers…linguistic determinism should predict the Pirahã would overcome their alleged difficulties with precise numbers as they are exposed to the Portuguese counting system” (p. 165).
Mentalese is a hypothetical mental system that is similar to language, but precedes its occurrence during cognitive processes.
All human beings utilize mentalize when thinking, but knowledge of a particular language allows for those thoughts to be communicated with others.
In this sense, mentalese supersedes the vehicle of communication called language.
The most recent proponent of mentalese being the driver of language rather than the other way around is Pinker (1994).
“The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications” (p. 57).
To make the point, Pinker uses the example of how new words are coined. If thought was dependent on language, then the emergence of new words could not occur.
Applications of Linguistic Determinism
The debate regarding the merits of linguistic determinism in its strongest form can be divisive, forcing scholars to choose between dichotomies that can and have been debated for decades.
Despite this ongoing debate, there are many practical applications of linguistic determinism.
1. In Cross-Cultural Relations
Understanding the impact of language in the shaping of worldviews is important when traveling, working internationally, and geopolitics.
When visiting a foreign country, one will undoubtedly encounter strange customs and beliefs. Encountering these situations can easily lead to a traveler feeling offended, or likewise, the local citizenry feeling offended by the words or deeds of tourists.
The same applies when working as an expat in a foreign land or in the realm of geopolitics, in which the stakes are potentially much more consequential.
Therefore, being aware of how language shapes perceptions and worldviews can help a person avoid unintentional misunderstandings and avoid conflict of all degrees.
2. In Academics
Whether it be in reading an academic paper, grading, or writing for a particular audience, it is important to account for the different thinking patterns that exist across languages (Kaplan, 1966).
Native English-speaking individuals think linearly. Presentation of arguments to support or rebut a point of view occur in a direct fashion.
However, in other language contexts, such as in some Asian cultures, thinking patterns revolve around a central idea, not from points that directly intersect the central tenets. Kaplan presents a graphical representation of these thinking patterns, reproduced below.
By understanding the pattern of thought that is represented by a language, it is easier to interpret and cope with the rationale of others.
There are two perspectives on how language affects thinking and perception of the world. The strong version is linguistic determinism, which posits that language is the defining framework from which perception emanates.
The milder version is linguistic relativity, which posits that language is more of a lens that shapes perception of the world. This version allows for some flexibility, acknowledges the role of culture, and accepts the malleability of language.
Research that supports either view can be found in the literature.
A balanced perspective in the debate would lead to a practical approach which allows one to apply the notions of both to various situations when interacting with others from different language backgrounds.
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