The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: How has research published since 2005 addressed it?

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has been a controversial but tantalizing topic of debate for linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists since its introduction in the early 20th-century.  Two early 20th-century linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, observed that speakers of different languages had very different ways of describing the world.  Sapir (1949) stated that human beings “are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”  His graduate student, Whorf (1956), concluded that language “shapes a man’s basic ideas,” and, “we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.”  Sapir and Whorf “never actually co-authored any specific hypothesis on the subject” (Everett, 2008), nor did they ever state that “language constrains a speaker’s worldview” (Athanasopoulous, 2009), but the hypothesis was named after their work, nonetheless.  Interest in the subject has waxed and waned over the years but recently there has been another upsurge in interest, with much resulting literature on the subject.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has two versions, a “strong” and a “weak” one.  The strong version of the theory, linguistic determinism, claims that the way we think about the world is entirely determined by the linguistic dictates of the language which we speak.  In this view our thoughts are completely constrained by the words we have with which to express them.  The weak version was outlined by Whorf (1956) as follows:  “…the ‘linguistic relativity principle’…means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by the grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.”  In other words, Whorf suggests that language acts as a filter through which we see the world.  It directs our attention toward specific qualities of experience and away from others (Athanasopoulos, 2009).  In this view, language influences our non-linguistic thought processes but it does not govern them.

The view that the language we speak determines what we think is ambitious and is discounted by most researchers, although some still hold to the theory.  Most research indicates that language does not determine what we are able to think about, but there may be some support for the idea that language influences thought.  Any infant from any part of the world can learn any language in the world to which it is exposed, not just the language of the culture into which it is born, so we know that language is not based upon genetics.  Language and culture, however, are intimately related.  In fact, Levinson and Wilkins (2006) put forth the strong claim that “where we have cultural divergences, language may not so much reflect underlying cognition, as actively drive it.”  Many of the differences we see between various languages, in terms of how ideas are expressed in each language, are dependent upon what is important to each culture. Research on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, therefore, touches on many areas of linguistic and non-linguistic behavior, including cultural point of view, the perception of time, the perception of color, the semantic implications of grammatical gender, the perception of space, and even the relationship between language and emotion.

What, then, is the relationship between language and thought? Undoubtedly, thought occurs without the use of words. For example, if you were asked to recall where you put your car keys last night when you got home from work, most likely you would conjure up a mental image of where you physically placed your keys.  Similarly, if you were asked to recall the smell of a rose or fresh baked bread, would you use words or mental images?   It can also be said that thought influences language because new words are constantly being created to describe new ideas.  The ideas come first and the words for the ideas follow.  Words, in turn, can be said to influence our thinking.

Cultural point of view is perhaps the most obvious place to begin a discussion of linguistic relativity.  Those things that are most salient to a culture are the things for which that culture will develop specialized terminology.  Take, for instance, the highly controversial notion that Eskimos have many words for snow.  Snow is among the most significant characteristics of their environment, so it would stand to reason that they would, for the sake of their survival, develop an expertise on the topic of snow and would, therefore, have more terms to refer to it than, say, a culture that lives in the Mediterranean and does not have to experience snow on a day to day basis.

Vantage Theory deals with this “way in which a cognizer constructs, recalls, uses, and modifies a category in terms of point of view or vantage” (Allan, 2010).  Linguist Keith Allan has extended this theory to also encompass formalized semantics while considering vantage point and conceptualization in relation to categorization.  Categorization is done through a need to organize and fix our relationship to external reality.  It is arbitrary and done from our own point of view or the point of view of the larger group of people in which we live.  Allan contends that linguistic relativity is compatible with Vantage Theory and that “it accounts for the fact that different language communities take different vantages with respect to denotation and reference of colour terms; it allows for modification of the range of these terms over time, sometimes as the result of language contact.”

Time is another arena in which linguistic relativity researchers are interested.  It has been demonstrated that all languages that have been studied so far use their spatial vocabulary to refer to time (Nuñez and Sweetser, 2006).  English speakers refer to the future as being ahead of them and the past behind them, Mandarin Chinese speakers refer to the future as being below them and the past above them, but sometimes they also use the horizontal time axis just as English speakers do, and speakers of Aymara, from the Andean region of South America, refer to the future as being behind them and the past in front of them. (Casasanto, 2008; Chen, 2007; Nuñez and Sweetser, 2006).  Margolies and Crawford (2008) performed a study to determine if emotional affect would influence a speaker to use different time/space/motion metaphors based upon whether or not an anticipated event was thought to be a positive or a negative one.  They found that subjects used a metaphor expressing themselves as moving forward in space/time toward the future if the future event was considered a positive one, but if the future event was considered negative, the subjects used a metaphor expressing themselves as stationary and the future event as moving toward them.  They report that “participants judge an event to be more positive if it is described from the ego-moving perspective than if it is described from the time-moving perspective.”

A study by Casasanto (2008) of native speakers of English and native speakers of Greek found that the preferred temporal metaphors of the two languages were either that of time as distance (English) or time as amount (Greek).  Speakers of both languages use both types of metaphors, however Casasanto found that English speakers predominantly use distance metaphors for time (e.g., a long meeting), whereas Greek speakers predominantly use amount metaphors for time (e.g., synantisi pou diekese poli “meeting that lasts much”).  The Greek word poli means “much, a lot.”  Casasanto concluded that “the way we mentally represent time covaries with the way we talk about it in our native languages” and that all infants and pre-linguistic children experience the physical properties of time in the same way, but we receive conditioning in the form of the predominant temporal metaphors as we obtain language, and this in turn affects the way we think about time.

Studies involving the perception of color across cultures and languages suggest that people of all cultures, regardless of the language they use to describe colors, can physically see the same colors, although the words used to refer to colors influences how they perceive those colors.  From the Dani of New Guinea, who have only two basic color terms, equivalent to ‘light’ and ‘dark’, to Greeks, who have terms for all of the same basic colors as English speakers do, plus an additional distinction for light and dark blues, many tests have been done to determine if people from different cultures experience color in the same way.

Agrillo and Roberson (2008) studied the relationship between color recall and verbal coding.  Liu et al. (2009) studied how language influences the perception of color.  They found that colors introduced solely into the right visual field were processed and named more quickly than colors introduced solely into the left visual field.  They conclude that because language processing centers are in the left hemisphere of the brain, colors introduced into the right visual field, which is also processed on the left hemisphere of the brain, are processed faster.  This is called lateralization.  The research of Gilbert et al. (2008) also supports that “Whorf effects of language on color discrimination are stronger in the right visual field than in the left” and the effect is “not limited to color” and may indicate that language and perception do indeed interact in the left hemisphere of the brain. Regier and Kay (2009) provide a review of recent research in this domain and confirm that “the Whorf hypothesis is half right, in two different ways: (1) language influences color perception primarily in half the visual field, and (2) color naming across languages is shaped by both universal and language-specific forces.”  They also go on to say that the effect may have farther reaching consequences than just for color.  (See also Drivonikou, 2010; Franklin, 2008; Gilbert, 2006; Gilbert 2008.)

Two studies on Greek blue terms, Thierry et al. (2009) and Athanasopoulos (2009), determined that the differentiation of blue into two shades (ble, dark blue, and ghalazio, light blue) had the effect of faster visual processing of color between shades of blue and green in native Greek speakers than English speakers.  Athanasopoulos’ (2009) study involved Greek-English bilinguals and showed that with shift of language there was also a shift in coding of the color space.  His conclusion was that “concepts in the human mind are not stable and fixed but flexible and changing, susceptible to both linguistic and cultural influence.”

Grammatical gender: is there a relationship between a language’s grammatical gender and perception?  How has the historical second person generic pronoun in English, “he/him/his,” influenced English speakers’ thoughts about gender roles?  Is there any evidence that gender discrimination has occurred based upon the use of this pronoun as a generic pronoun, and is there any merit to the movement for a gender-neutral generic pronoun?   Indeed, languages that assign grammatical gender have been investigated repeatedly as to whether or not the grammatical gender of a noun, which is assigned arbitrarily, influences the gender-related descriptors speakers assign to the nouns themselves.  Koch et al. (2007) studied native speakers of Spanish and German, languages with grammatical gender systems, to determine if there was any correlation between grammatical gender and semantics.  They found that “the link between grammatical and natural gender depends on the sex-to-gender mapping complexity of the language one speaks.”  Kousta et al. (2007) studied bilingual Italian-English speakers to determine what effect, if any, grammatical gender had on meaning.  They found that if the speakers were tested in English, they performed like English monolinguals, and if tested in Italian, they performed like Italian monolinguals. Their results showed that “for bilingual speakers there is intraspeaker relativity in semantic representations and, therefore, that gender does not have a conceptual, nonlinguistic effect.”

Cherng et al. (2009) studied gender inequality in Chinese through interpretation of the semantic features of Chinese characters.  They hypothesized that the Chinese character for woman, nu3, was used as a component of characters such as “adultery” and other not-so-favorable terms, and as such, might be perceived as less than favorable.  They tested two other characters, one representing “human” with the connotation “+masculine” and the other representing “son”.  They asked Taiwanese college students to rate the characters and their dictionary definitions as positive, neutral, or negative.  They found that the character for woman was rated slightly less favorably than the word for human, and more favorably than the word for son.  They concluded that “linguistic relativity…does not find support in the Chinese script when individual gender-based characters are examined.”

A study by Peter Githinji (2008) examined the Kenyan Swahili-based street language, Sheng, and its users, and the sexist treatment of women both within the language and by researchers of Sheng.  Sheng has been variously classified as slang, dialect, pidgin and Creole by researchers.  It is used primarily by male impoverished youth within Nairobi, but it has a share of female users as well.  The use of it confers power to the male speakers, but females are looked down upon for using it.  Githinji postulates discrimination on the part of researchers because, even though Sheng has been around since the late 1960s and early 1970s, not much research has been done that has included female Sheng speakers, and that which has been done is noticeably biased toward the male speakers. Sheng words referring to females are almost all words which marginalize, objectify, or portray women as “deviants”, while words referring to males are words that connote power.  Githinji argues that the Sheng words referring to females directly influence the perception of females in Sheng circles.

“Sometimes there is a good case for supposing that language, and more broadly communication systems, are causal factors in inducing specific ways of thinking about space”  (Levinson and Wilkins, 2006).  Thang (2010) studied spatial relation terms in Vietnamese and concluded that there exists “linguistic and cultural relativity of human spatial orientation.”

There is a wide range of variability in how different languages talk about space and motion.  Hickmann and Hendricks (2010) examined the differences in spatial representation between speakers of French and English and found a great deal of variation:
“ (1) She runs/crawls . . . up, down, away, across, into, out of . . .
(2) Elle monte, descend, part, traverse, entre, sort . . . en courant/a`
quatre pattes . . . .
(‘She ascends, descends, leaves, crosses, enters, exits . . . by running/
on all fours . . . ’)”
The study showed that English, as a “satellite-framed” language, one that uses the verb to express the manner of motion, supplemented by other words to show the path of motion, may be an easier language to acquire than French, a “verb-framed” language, one that uses the verb to express path of motion and supplements with other words to show manner of motion, because there is less to work out in English than in French when trying to express information.

Interestingly, Cardini (2010) also investigated the question of linguistic relativity and motion terminology.  He asked native English speakers and native Italian speakers to watch motion-related videos and describe the relationship between the objects in motion.  He found that “English and Italian speakers exhibited the same differential attention for manner vs. path of motion” and consequently proclaimed that his study provided no evidence for linguistic relativity effects on the perception of motion.

Pollio et al. (2005) studied native English speakers’ classification of English spatial terms into groups that made semantic sense to them.  They could not find a definitive answer to the question of linguistic relativity through their study, but instead concluded that it “seems a better solution is to view the relationship between language and thought as dialectical rather than causal. Neither language nor thought need cause one another; rather both continuously interact.”

Finally, how does language influence emotions?  That is what Leonid Perlovsky addressed in his 2009 paper, Language and emotions: Emotional Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Perlovsky claims that differences in the way that different cultures conceive and express emotions are related to grammar and that the roles of the “emotional contents of language…in ontology, evolution, and cultural differences are significant…[and] could be more important in influence on cultures than their conceptual components.”  He also suggests further research to verify the emotion-grammar correlation through bio experiments including fMRI and skin conductance tests.

Physical support for the linguistic relativity hypothesis has recently come from the use of functional MRI, or fMRI, in language experiments.  Tan et al. (2008) have determined through the use of fMRI that “the language processing areas of the brain are directly involved in visual perceptual decision.”

The linguistic relativity hypothesis has been very difficult to test.  Part of the problem is that it is difficult to word the tests in such a way as to not influence the results.  If language influences thought, how can we use language in a neutral way that will not influence the outcome of the tests?  What effect do the instructions given have on the way people perform the tasks in question?   There is also difficulty in formulating tests because it is difficult to know what areas of thought may be influenced by linguistic relativity.  Results are varied and contradictory, so whenever there has been a study claiming “proof,” another researcher has undertaken a study that disproves the previous one.

Although the theory has had its challenges, there may, indeed, be reason to believe that language influences thought.  Vantage Theory (Allan, 2010) addresses the idea that cultural point of view is based upon the way a culture perceives and relates to reality, but it also points out that we humans can add new words for new concepts as our views change, and as we grow.  Studies on language and time have shown that there is some relation between how we talk about time and how we perceive it.  Research done on the relationship between language and the perception of color have shown that the more color terms a language has, the more quickly a speaker can distinguish between similar colors.  Other studies have shown that this effect is only active in the left half of the brain – corresponding to the position of the right visual field and the language processing centers.  Studies done on the connection between grammatical gender and gender equality have been contradictory.  Research done on space and motion has shown mainly that language and thought interact, but not conclusively that thought is influenced by language.  Finally, the interaction between emotion and language has yielded some strong results indicating a correlation between emotion and grammar using new technologies, such as fMRI, to measure physical response. Perhaps with further research in this area we shall eventually have, once and for all, a definitive answer to the question “Does the language I speak influence what I think?”.


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Comments (2)

  • Theresa Schilhab

    Dear Annisa Tangreen,
    I just read your fascinating paper and would like to cite it in a research application I am currently working on.
    Is this a formal publication or how would you like me to cite it?

    Many thanks in advance
    Sincerely yours,
    Theresa Schilhab

    • Hi Theresa. This is an unpublished paper. I wrote it for a linguistics class several years ago. I’m not sure that it should be cited as a reference in your paper. Feel free to use the information to point you in the direction of good, published research on the topic, though.
      Annisa Tangreen