Is Linguistic Relativity Real?

A few months ago I made a post discussing the theory of linguistic relativity, explaining its general premise and how it was applied in a well-known sci-fi movie. Today, I’d like to revisit the idea, exploring how credible its different versions really are through examinations of a few case studies.

To briefly summarize the concept, linguistic relativity (also commonly referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), is the idea that language influences cognitive function. In modern linguistics, it takes three forms: the strong, restricted, and weak hypotheses. The strong hypothesis comes from an interpretation of one of Whorf’s writings on the subject, claiming that the only conceptual distinctions we can make are those allowed by our language. The restricted version is a little vaguer, stating that there are some conceptual distinctions that we cannot make due to our language. The weak hypothesis is even more general, simply claiming that the way we stereotypically or habitually think of some topics is influenced by language. For the rest of this post, I’m going to briefly dive into each hypothesis and offer some thoughts on its validity.

Let’s start with the strong hypothesis; it is largely held that this version of the theory is not only false but also extremely dangerous. One of the key known principles of human language, an aspect that sets us apart from other animals, is the productive creativity of human speech. That is to say, anything can be expressed in any modern language, even if a word or expression for it does not exist at that moment – the addition of new words into the lexicon is a common occurrence. Furthermore, simple introspection tells us that we can understand concepts that we do not possess words for (for example the clumps of dust that gather under your bed may be dust bunnies or dust monsters or simply not have a name, but we all know what they are). If you are not yet convinced that you shouldn’t believe this version of the theory, let me make a humanitarian point: believing that people who speak other languages fundamentally think differently from you furthers the otherness of others. We cannot hold this view if we are to strive for equality and unity amongst peoples.

Okay, let’s move on to the restricted hypothesis. In order to test validity, researchers performed experiments with a group of remote hunter-gatherers in Brazil: the Pirahã. Their language contains a very limited counting system, something along the lines of one, some, many with a little bit more nuance. The study found that while the Pirahã could match quantities of two different types of objects when both objects were present, they failed to do so when they had to remember one quantity and then replicate it without visual stimulus. In other words, they didn’t have the ability to remember specific numerical quantities.

So, this proves the hypothesis right? Not quite, for two reasons. The first is that this really isn’t an exemplification of language, but rather a tool that may or may not be developed alongside language, similar to finger counting of the abacus. One does not necessarily need to be able to count in order to communicate ideas effectively, and it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that a member of the Pirahã group could have performed the memory-based tasks if equipped with an abacus, indicating that cognitive function is not actually limited at all. Furthermore, we must ask the question: what came first? Did the Pirahã’s language limit their ability to do mental arithmetic or did they not learn mental arithmetic because they had no need for it, and thus it was not incorporated into their language? In summary, as this is one of the best experiments in favor of the restricted hypothesis, even though it has not been disproved, it is regarded as rather unlikely.

Now, we are left with the weak hypothesis, and here we do start to see some promising results. Two experiments, one on differentiating between colors and one on gendered nouns, both indicate that our languages may indeed create bias in our cognitive function. First, let’s look at the experiment on color. Experimenters examined differences in the abilities of English and Russian speakers to differentiate between shades of blue given that Russian speakers have distinct words for describing light and dark blue. Indeed, the researchers found that the Russian speakers were able to make quicker differentiations between similar light and dark shades.

A further study comparing gendered nouns in German and Spanish also produced remarkable findings. The gender of nouns in languages tends to be relatively random, allowing researchers to select nouns that have opposite genders in the two languages and then ask speakers to describe the nouns. Then, they asked native English speakers (English does not have masculine/feminine nouns) to rank how masculine or feminine each adjective was. As expected by supporters of the weak hypothesis, the adjectives were strongly correlated with the gender of the noun they were describing. For example, German speakers were more likely to describe a bridge as slender and fragile, while Spanish speakers described bridges as sturdy and strong.

However, this certainly does not mean that a German-speaking engineer doesn’t know that a bridge should be strong and able to support heavy loads; language can assist or bias thinking, but it does not restrict it whatsoever. A difference of milliseconds in decision-making or a subtle bias that disappears upon reflection does not constitute a significant difference between people. It is vital that we remember that we are all human.

So, in summary, the stronger versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are most likely not accurate, and while rather interesting, putting too much focus on the potential accuracy of the weak hypothesis endangers our ability to see each other as equals and can exaggerate the extent to which people think language actually affects cognition.

I think something should also be said for the emotional associations someone has with a language. While not following the idea that language directly influences cognition, it may be plausible that someone’s mood may be influenced by the language they are currently immersed in. This is, of course, pure speculation, largely based on personal experience from my bilingual upbringing, and the argument could be made that mood changes are based more on culture than language, but perhaps it is an interesting area for future work.

Works Cited and Acknowledgements

  • Huge thank you to Professor Kai von Fintel for the classes he taught on this subject! His commentary and presentation were extremely interesting and insightful.
  • Elbourne, P. (2011). Meaning: a slim guide to semantics. Oxford University Press.
  • Frank, M. C., Everett, D. L., Fedorenko, E., & Gibson, E. (2008). Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition, 108(3), 819-824.
  • Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A. R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 104(19), 7780-7785.
  • Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L. A., & Phillips, W. (2003). Sex, syntax, and semantics. Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought, 22, 61-79.

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