Some Thoughts on Linguistic Relativity


The great Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini once said, “a different language is a different vision of life.” Anyone who has ever seen a Fellini film knows that people can have different visions of the same world. This thought poses a couple of questions relevant to the cultural adjustment process. To what extent does language filter our perception of the world? Does language shape a person’s view of the world or is language only a reflection of a cultural worldview?

     Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf proposed an idea about how language can shape a person’s perception of the world that has become known by several different labels. These labels include Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Whorfian hypothesis, linguistic relativity, and linguistic determinism (Brown, 1992).

     While comparing the linguistic properties of several Native American languages with English, Sapir began to hypothesize that speakers of different languages have to pay attention to different aspects of reality to put words together into grammatical sentences (Pinker, 1994). His student Whorf, who was also doing research on Native American languages, expanded upon Sapir’s ideas. In the following much-quoted passage Whorf (1956) describes his thoughts on linguistic relativity:

     The background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions that has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic system in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGAORY; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. (pp. 212-214)


     Trask (1995) summarizes the linguistic relativity hypothesis to mean that the “structure of our language in large measure affects the way we perceive the world.” This view that speakers of different languages perceive the world differently as a result of differences in linguistic properties of their native languages is controversial and there have been many critics who refute it.  However, it is likely that certain aspects of language do provide us with cognitive mindsets.  Learners of English may view certain situations differently than native English speakers.  This may lead to challenges in social and academic communication.

     Although the debate over language shaping culture or culture shaping language continues, it is easy to agree on several points. The process of learning to think in a second language requires a considerable level of mastering that language, but it does not mean that a second language learner has to learn to think again. However, it does mean that second culture learning is part of second language learning (Brown, 1992).



Brown, Douglas H. (1992). “Sociocultural factors in teaching language minority students.” In

Patricia A. Richard Amato and Marguerite Ann Snow (Eds.), The MultiCultural Classroom: Readings for Content-Area Teachers. Reading, MA: Addison- Wesley Publishing Co., Inc.


Pinker, Steven. (1994). The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books.


Trask, R. L. (1995). Language: The basics. London: Routledge.


Whorf, Benjamin, (1956). “Science and Linguistics.” In J, Carroll (Ed.), Language, Thought and

Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge: MIT Press