Linguistic relativity, often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is a linguistics theory that language can shape our perceptions of reality and control our thoughts.
As a result, people who speak different languages may have fundamentally different lenses through which they see reality.
According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, language’s structure and content have the power to direct one’s thoughts by controlling how we comprehend reality.
This idea implies that language usage patterns can determine the approach toward different situations.
For instance, the people who speak Inuit have numerous phrases to describe snow, reflecting that they rely heavily on elements like snow.
Therefore, an individual speaking this dialect may view ice sheets differently than someone using English with meager terminology regarding frozen water bodies’ diverse aspects.
So, linguistic relativity means that people who speak different languages may have distinct ways of looking at their surroundings due to the variations in terms used by each language.
Definition of Linguistic Relativity
Linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, suggests that language shapes our thoughts and perceptions – even impacting how we conceptualize the world around us (Lucy, 1997).
It means that different people can perceive even the same words in a bit or completely different manner across various languages.
According to Lucy (1997),
“…the linguistic relativity hypothesis, the proposal that the particular language we speak influences the way we think about reality, form one part of the broader question of how language influences thought” (p. 291).
A classic example of this is color perception. Certain languages have distinct words for shades English speakers might consider one hue.
It makes it easier to distinguish between such nuances when compared to their counterparts who only use a single term for both.
While research on its validity remains ongoing, many scholars believe other factors like culture or environment may contribute toward cognition just as much (if not more) than speech itself (Busser, 2015).
As Marina (2008) states,
“…linguistic relativity is a complicated, multilevel and multidimensional phenomenon referring to the relations between language, thought, experience (reality) and culture” (p. 59).
To put it simply, this hypothesis suggests that people who speak different languages perceive the world differently due to variations in terms used by each language.
A Note from Chris: Linguistic relativity comes in two forms: strong and weak linguistic relativity, with the former implying language, dictates thought processes while the latter holds its influences but does not determine them entirely (Marina, 2008).
10 Examples of Linguistic Relativity
- Color: The way different languages classify and refer to colors varies. For instance, certain languages have distinct phrases for light blue and dark blue, which may allow those speakers to more quickly recognize the differences between these shades compared to people who speak other dialects.
- Time perception: Our linguistic expression of time can have a powerful impact on our understanding and experience of it. Take the Hopi language, for instance. By not utilizing tenses to differentiate between past or future events, its speakers may interpret time in quite a distinct way compared with those conversants in languages that employ such devices.
- Spatial orientation: Different languages approach the concept of spatial orientation in distinct ways. For instance, some rely on absolute references such as north, south, east, and west to describe objects’ locations. In contrast, others employ relative orientations based on nearby landmarks or other points of reference. This contrast can substantially influence how speakers perceive and move through space.
- Numbers: Numbers are more than just figures; they can be powerful symbols with the potential to affect how we perceive them profoundly. Our language, and our use of it when expressing numbers, plays a critical role in this process. Take, for instance, the Pirahã dialect – it only has terms to describe ‘one,’ ‘two,’ and ‘many’; this could potentially restrict their capacity to carry out certain numerical operations.
- Gender: How gender is expressed through language can significantly shape our understanding of it. As an example, certain languages assign a gender to all nouns. This could lead speakers of such tongues to link particular traits with entities sharing the same gender designation (see also: how gender is socially constructed).
- Metaphors: The use of metaphors in language can significantly influence how we perceive intangible concepts. For example, when expressing love in English, the tendency is to compare it with heat (“he’s burning with passion”). In contrast, other languages might instead employ sensory analogies such as sight or sound. Such an approach offers us different perspectives and further enriches our understanding of this abstract concept.
- Directional language: Native speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre have an edge, thanks to their directional language. Constantly considering where they are in space requires them to use terms like “north,” “south,” and so on when talking about people or objects – leading some experts to believe that this dialect’s users might possess a heightened sense of spatial awareness compared with others.
- Causation: The way we word our cause-and-effect statements can have a huge impact on how they are perceived. For instance, English speakers often phrase them in the form of ‘if-then’ sentences (“If it rains, the ground will become wet”), whereas other languages may take another approach to convey causation. This kind of distinction could significantly shape an individual’s understanding of causality.
- Social relationships: How is employed to express social dynamics can deeply impact how we perceive our standing in the power structure. As an example, certain languages may feature distinct levels of politeness depending upon who you are talking to and their position of influence or stature.
- Perception of taste: The power of language to shape our perception is clearly illustrated when considering taste. For example, take the Indonesian word “enak,” which conveys a blend of sweet and salty flavors – something that English doesn’t have an equivalent term for. Consequently, this may lead Indonesians to savor such tastes differently than those who don’t speak their language – ultimately highlighting how one’s mother tongue can influence experience!
Origins of Linguistic Relativity
The concept of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as it’s often known, originated with two early 20th-century linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (Hahner, 2017).
The former, Edward Sapir, was a renowned anthropologist who believed that language played an essential role in human cognition and culture formation.
He proposed different languages possess varying ways of expressing concepts which could lead to diverse thought processes among speakers (Hahner, 2017).
His student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, took his ideas one step further by suggesting that language influenced thought and determined it.
He claimed grammar structures within certain tongues create unique worldviews for its users distinct from those using other languages (Hahner, 2017).
In this way, these two pioneers established the basis for linguistic relativity.
Although met with criticism throughout time due to debate surrounding the topic, today, their work is highly regarded across fields like psychology, anthropology, and cognitive science alike!
Strong and Weak Forms of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity, can be divided into two forms – strong and weak (McIntyre et al., 2021).
Strong form (or linguistic determinism) argues that one’s language determines their worldview, while weak (linguistic relativity) claims it merely shapes them without constraining thoughts.
For example, English speakers often describe time using spatial metaphors like ‘looking forward’ to the future or ‘looking back’ on past events. Yet this doesn’t limit an individual from thinking about time in non-spatial ways as well.
In contrast, however, is North America’s Hopi tribe who lack a linear concept of time entirely due to their agricultural lifestyle being expressed through cycles and seasons instead.
Therefore, proponents of strong linguistic relativism argue for more than just influence when considering cognitive abilities between cultures speaking diverse languages (McIntyre et al., 2021).
But, those backing up weaker theories suggest there is still room left open for personal interpretation despite any existing frameworks they provide us with based on language alone.
Criticism of Linguistic Relativity
Studies attempting to prove linguistic relativity have been faulted for their methodological flaws, such as tiny sample sizes or biased participant selection (Everett, 2013).
Critics also suggest that the hypothesis oversimplifies the complex connection between language and thought. While it may influence our thinking somewhat, many factors shape cognition and perception apart from language alone (Everett, 2013).
Furthermore, this theory fails to explain universal concepts present across all languages – time being one example expressed differently yet universally understood among cultures around the world (Lucy, 1997).
Additionally, linguistic relativity tends to focus on something other than similarities existing within various languages, like similar grammatical structures expressing analogous ideas (Everett, 2013).
Thereby, it is limiting a more comprehensive understanding of different tongues’ capabilities.
Finally, some observers assert that this belief can encourage cultural biases by implying people speaking diverse dialects think fundamentally divergent ways about life matters or understand reality in distinct manners (Lucy, 1997).
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or language relativity has become a cornerstone of linguistics, anthropology, and psychology. This theory suggests that language can have an impact on how we think – to what degree depends on the context.
For example, English speakers often use spatial metaphors when talking about time, while North America’s Hopi tribe views it as recurring cycles or seasons.
Some studies have criticized linguistic relativity for having methodological issues and an oversimplification of the relationship between language and thought while disregarding similarities among various languages.
Despite the varying opinions, experts in psychology, anthropology, and cognitive science still hold their work with high regard and continue to devote time to its research.
Busser, R. D. (2015). Chapter 1. The influence of social, cultural, and natural factors on language structure. John Benjamins Publishing Company EBooks, 1–28. https://doi.org/10.1075/clscc.6.01bus
Everett, C. (2013). Linguistic relativity: Evidence across languages and cognitive domains (applications of cognitive linguistics). New York: De Gruyter Mouton.
Hahner, L. (2017). Testing linguistic relativity. The rediscovery of a controversial theory. London: Grin Publishing.
Lucy, J. (1997). Linguistic relativity. Annu. Rev. Anthropol, 26, 291312. https://cslc.nd.edu/assets/142525/lucy_linguistic_relativity.pdf
Marina, V. (2008). Linguistic relativity and its theoretical and practical value at the time of globalization. Santalka, 16(2), 57–66. https://doi.org/10.3846/1822-430x.2008.16.2.57-66 McIntyre, D., Jeffries, L., Evans, M., & Gold, E. (2021). The babel lexicon of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.