Linguistic Relativity Theory

Dan Hawkmoon Alford

Type of Psychology: Language

Field of Study: Thought, Cognitive Processes 

Linguistic Relativity is the examination of the relationship between thinking and the grammar of a language: how what is considered logical in any language grows out of what is grammatical. Linguistic Relativity claims that both Western logic and modern science arise out of the worldview presented by the grammars of European languages. This is perhaps the most hotly debated topic in academic speculations on thinking. 

Principal Terms

Linguistic Relativity Theory is not actually a well-formulated theory at all, but a series of observations about the relationship between language and thinking stretching back to the time of Plato. The question is, do all human beings think the same way regardless of the way they speak, or is the way people think influenced by the language they speak? Is there one universal logic everyone more or less abides by, or is logic itself relative to the grammar of a given language?

The name most frequently associated with linguistic relativity is Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), a small portion of whose writings were posthumously collected, edited and published by John Carroll as Language, Thought & Reality (1956). Although Whorf makes a great many statements about features universal to all languages, he is mostly remembered for his statements of the principle of linguistic relativity in two of his essays, "Science and Linguistics" and "Linguistics as an Exact Science:"

... users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world (p. 221).

The perception of 'time' is often used as an example of linguistic relativity, not experienced in the same way by all human beings. After studying the Hopi American Indian language, Whorf concluded that time is talked about and experienced by Hopis as a circular flow, tied to the ever changing and returning seasons, in contrast to the European thought-image of time as a linear flow out of a past, through a present and into a future (as exemplified in expressions such as "Time goes by so slowly" and "Our future is ahead of us.) So while those who espouse a universalist point of view say that every language makes reference to time, relativists say that the universalist statement is true only if 'time' is given a wider meaning than our usually accepted linear notion of it--that 'time' (as we are assisted to imagine it) is a linguistic construct and not understood by all human beings in the same way we understand it in our Western, linear sense.

'Animacy' is also seen by some relativists in the same light. Although universalists claim that all languages in the world mark the difference between animate beings and inanimate things in the world, evidence from Algonkian languages suggests that this is true only if we divorce the term 'animate' from our usual notion of 'living,' since Algonkian languages grammatically mark as animate not only living beings, but also sacred objects, spirits, some body parts (calf of leg but not thigh), rocks, and other assorted objects (raspberries but not strawberries); in other words, what is grammatically marked as animate in these languages forces us to create a broader category than just our Western notion of 'living' (some have suggested 'power' or 'spirit). Note that English marks animacy only indirectly and incompletely, as when it assigns the third person pronouns 'he' and 'she' to some living beings (such as humans), but 'it'-which implies inanimate-to plants, trees, insects, dolphins, whales, and any other beings for whom male/female orientation is not immediately apparent thus, perhaps, contributing to our general thought-image of nature and the universe as inanimate.

Even though it is not 'logical' to us that sacred objects, rocks, body parts and raspberries should be treated as animate, linguistic relativity accounts for this fact, since Whorf and other relativists state that logic is relative as well: what is considered logical by speakers of a given language grows out of the grammar of their language--what is grammatical (that is, what must be explicitly expressed in an utterance) is 'logical.' Since all grammars are different, there are, according to this view, different logics as well: there is no single universal logic that all human beings inherit at birth.

Why should such relativity actually be true? Whorf believed that it is because of the very nature of structure itself: that every language incorporates certain points of view and certain patterned resistances to widely divergent points of view. Every structure draws a line, making it easy to notice certain things and disregard the rest, and every grammar in the world draws the lines in a different way. So while we may assign a universal status to some abstract notions, such as the human capacity for language, relativists often cast a wary eye on claims of universality for actual linguistic structures.


The major application for linguistic relativity is in thinking about thinking itself, in trying to figure out how much of our own cultural logic and views of reality are influenced simply by the language we speak. Unless we can separate what is universally present for all human beings in external reality and that which we project unconsciously from the logic inherent in our own grammars, we can never produce intelligence tests, personality tests or any other testing instruments or protocols which are truly culture-free. Absent the conscious knowledge that notions of 'time', 'animacy, 'causation', and grammatical categories such as 'verbs' and 'nouns' are purely linguistic constructs, projected onto rather than derived from reality, we can never escape our own transparent linguistic and cultural biases.

In an article appearing in Current Anthropology (Sept 1979), entitled "The Impact of Chinese Linguistic Structure on Cognitive Style," Alfred H. Bloom shows that the "counterfactual," a structure prevalent in Indo-European languages, does not exist in Chinese, and this difference brought about different responses from English-speaking and Chinese-speaking subjects. That is, statements such as "If John had gone to the library he would have seen Mary" must be rendered in Chinese approximately as "John didn't go to the library, if he did, he saw Mary." English marks the counterfactual notion with if, had, and would, but Chinese has no structural equivalent. So although 97% of English speakers in Bloom's study could process the implications of the English sentence John didn't see Mary), only 29% of Chinese speakers could do so when presented with a Chinese equivalent of the sentence. Bloom observes that Chinese has no way to express distinctly a mood, familiar to us, which helps us "shunt aside reality considerations and consider a state of affairs known to be false for the purpose of drawing implications as to what might be or might have been if that state of affairs were true." In fact, Chinese speakers branded this type of question and the logic it implies as "unnatural" and "un-Chinese." From this and other such tests given to Chinese and English speakers, Bloom concludes that the counterfactual is an incentive for Indo-European speakers to theoretical thinking and constructing theoretical models to account for data, whereas the lack of it in Chinese induces a general disinclination for them doing so, which can be seen as well in their traditionally "more practical, reality-centered approaches to scientific, social and moral questions (p. 586)."

Another example, elaborated by Edward Sapir in "The Grammarian and His Language" (1924), is that when we notice what we call a 'stone' moving towards the earth through space, we unconsciously analyze this event as consisting of two concrete notions, 'stone' and 'falling, and relate them to each other through English grammar by saying something like "The stone is falling"--unconsciously assuming that all humans would analyze the situation the same way. However, if we were speaking French or German we would also be forced to state whether the stone was masculine or feminine (the two languages disagree on which it is); whereas if we spoke Chippewa we would be forced to mention the fact, irrelevant to English speakers but important to Chippewa, that the stone was felt to be inanimate. A Russian speaker, not used to making a distinction between definite and indefinite nouns, would wonder why we said "the stone" instead of "a stone" or just "stone falls." A Kwakiutl Indian would agree with us that definiteness was important, but would also be forced by his grammar to notice and state whether the stone is visible or invisible at the moment of speaking, and whether it is closest to the speaker, addressee, or some other party to the conversation--but would not need to specify the time of its falling. Chinese, with its relative lack of grammatical morphemes, could be content with just "stone fall." Finally, though all these languages, like English, divide the world into nouns and verbs, the Nootka language does not, and has no verb truly corresponding to our "fall": it uses a single word, a verb form with two parts--one part indicating the general movement of a stonelike object ("to stone") and the other giving the notion of downward.

It is easy to see from these examples that human languages dissect the flow of reality and our place in it in vastly different ways--which brings up another application of linguistic relativity: the fidelity of translations to their original meanings. In addition to the above examples, consider the following scenario inside American courtrooms: when a person being tried for a crime testifies in a language other than English through an interpreter and there are native speakers of that other language on the jury, those jurors must promise to disregard statements in their native language and pay attention only to the translator's English version, just like the native English-speaking jurors, even though the English translator may provide implications not present in the original testimony. Here is a case where subtle differences can send a person to prison. Worse yet, Charles Berlitz believes that Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have been spared the atom bomb had a single word mokusatsu, meaning variously "ignore," "withhold comment," or "have no comment," been translated differently: when the Japanese were told about our terrible new weapon and asked to surrender or face massive destruction, the Japanese government announced it was following a policy of mokusatsu until after a full cabinet discussion--which was translated to Americans as "ignore."


Linguistic relativity, the current term for the relationship between language and thought, encompasses a series of debates stretching back to ancient Greece. It derives its modern form from a school of thought established by the Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussian Minister of Public Worship and Education in the early 1800s, and founder of the first Chair of Linguistics at the University of Bonn--and thus of linguistics as an academic field. A participant in the first translations of ancient Sanskrit texts into the European culture, von Humboldt formulated the notion of a 'worldview' which arises from the unique grammar of every language and influences unreflective thinking processes; that is, influences what is felt to be 'logical' and 'rational' to speakers of a language, but is derived, unaware, from the grammar and other structures of the language.

It is important to understand that, as Minister of Public Worship and Education, Humboldt's views have subtly permeated the educational systems of German-speaking countries even to the present time. Historical figures such as Albert Einstein in physics, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger in philosophy, and Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and indirectly his student Benjamin Whorf in linguistics, were beneficiaries of Humboldt's worldview.

It is equally important to understand that the present conception of linguistic relativity was formed in a crucible containing the ages-old debate, Humboldt's new footing on the debate, and Einstein's formulation of the theory of relativity in modern physics. Sapir was perhaps the first to note the connections between Einstein's geometry-and-thinking puzzle and the larger language-and-thinking puzzle. In his essay, "The Grammarian and His Language" (1924), after analyzing the structure of "The stone falls" in a number of different languages, Sapir concludes with a statement quintessential to the entire relativist position:

It would be possible to go on indefinitely with such examples of incommensurable analyses of experience in different languages. The upshot of it all would be to make very real to us a kind of relativity of speech as guides to an objective understanding of the nature of experience. This is the relativity of concepts or, as it might be called, the relativity of form of thought. It is not so difficult to grasp as the physical relativity of Einstein nor is it as disturbing to our sense of security as the psychological relativity of Jung, which is barely beginning to be understood, but it is perhaps more readily evaded than these. For its understanding comparative data of linguistics are a sine qua non. It is the appreciation of the relativity of the form of thought which results from linguistic study that is perhaps the most liberalizing thing about it. What fetters the mind and benumbs the spirit is ever the dogged acceptance of absolutes.

Sapir, schooled in Germany's relativist intellectual tradition as a youth, eventually taught linguistics at Yale University, where he influenced Benjamin Lee Whorf, who shares the oft-used misnomer 'the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis' with his professor. Whorf took Sapir's observations about the Einsteinian relativity of language and thought, and cast them into careful scientific language, calling it the principle of linguistic relativity after Einstein's principle of general relativity. That this happened in the 1930's is a sign of the often ill-understood synthetic kind of intellectual exuberance and expansiveness characteristic of thought in America during the twenties and thirties.

Whorf published only a few articles during his short life, ended abruptly by illness in 1941, and it was not until the next decade that his unpublished writings were collected and published. By this time the stage was set for the inevitable pendulum swing between opposites, and Noam Chomsky soon became the champion for those espousing universalist positions, a tendency which remained in fashion from the 1960's to the 1990's, rendering relativist views unpopular (i.e., inimical to academic promotion) in the social sciences.

In fact, articles and books 'disproving' relativity views have been much in vogue since the 1950's, as critics attempted to recast Whorf's principle and various of Sapir's and Whorf's observations into testable hypotheses, with varying degrees of success. Although Whorf generally wrote from a careful acausal, non-deterministic position (such as "language and thought influence each other"), scientific hypotheses require a one-way causal or deterministic statement--called 'strong' when extremely deterministic ("language determines cognition") and 'weak' otherwise ("language influences cognition"). Critics then typically claim that Whorf holds the 'strong' position while they themselves hold only the 'weak' one--which is ironic since Whorf's real position of mutual influence is 'weaker' than their own, according to their own definition. In the long run, however, this may say more about a current academic fashion than about linguistic relativity per se.

Ultimately, the universal/relative question in linguistics is analogous to the particle/wave question in physics: just as waves are what particles are when they aren't particles, linguistic concepts are relative when they aren't being universal--thus exhibiting the characteristics of complementary (both/and) rather than polar (either/or) opposition.


  1. Berlitz, Charles. Native Tongues. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1982. A popular book recounting anecdotes about languages around the world; of special interest concerning American Indian languages is the chapter entitled, "There Were Others Before Columbus."

  2. Birk-Seligson, Susan. The Bilingual Courtroom: Court Interpreters in the Judicial Process. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990. A somewhat specialized application of linguistics research concerning the rules, regulations and procedures surrounding the use of interpreters in American courtrooms.

  3. Brown, Roger Langharn. Wilhelm von Humboldt's Conception of Linguistic Relativity. The Hague: Mouton, 1967. This slim but weighty volume is a superb treatment of a phase in the history of linguistic relativity, during its Germanic era of the 1700's and 1800's, chronicling various pre-Humboldtian ideas and detailing the grand synthesis which Humboldt performed and passed down to, among others, Sapir and Whorf.

  4. Carroll, John B. Language and Thought. Foundations of Modern Psychology Series. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964. A slim volume by the editor of Whorf's manuscripts is recommended for its keeping psychology in mind as it teaches fundamentals of linguistics. Of special importance to the present topic are the final chapters, "Cognition and Thinking" and "Language and Cognition."

  5. Sapir, Edward. Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality, edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958. This collection illustrates the broad scope of interests written about by perhaps the most revered and elegant writer in twentieth century linguistics, and provides the earliest linking of language-and-thinking to Einstein's geometry-and-thinking principle of general relativity. While many of his articles are written for various specialists, "The Grammarian and His Language (p. 150)" and "The Status of Linguistics As A Science (p. 160)" are especially recommended for their accessibility and comments on linguistic relativity.

  6. Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Mind and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press, 1956. This book contains many previously unpublished articles written by Whorf from the late 1920's to the very early 1940's. Although some articles may be difficult for non-specialists, many others, such as "Thinking in Primitive Communities" (p. 65), " Science and Linguistics" (p. 207), and "Languages and Logic" (p. 233), are used almost universally in beginning linguistics classes.