Linguistic relativity

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Linguistic relativity, sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, posits that the language we use can influence and even control how we see the world, the categories we make, and the associations we make about those categories. On the one hand, it is a strong form of social constructionism. On the other hand, it has its origins in Romantic era ideas of national mysticism, in which languages were thought to embody a Volksgeist, a "national spirit" and identity of the people who spoke them.[1] The hypothesis asserts that aspects of language, including not only the ideas specified in its lexicon, but even technical details such as the ways it uses to specify grammatical tenses and its use of copulas, all create a complex experience or worldview that can only be imperfectly translated to another language.

Weak and strong[edit]

It comes in two forms, the weak hypothesis and strong hypothesis, although this distinction originates with neither SapirWikipedia nor Whorf.[2] The strong version states that language influences how we think and allows us particular modes of thought, creating our cognitive categories which in turn control cognitive processes. This is also referred to as linguistic determinism. The weak version states that our linguistic categories merely influence our thoughts, but do not create or control the cognitive processes, or restrict certain thoughts because the language terms do not exist (as in Newspeak). There is no hard and fast boundary between the "weak" and "strong" versions of linguistic relativity; they merely open up debate as to the strength of the effect language has on thought processes. Most research into language disfavours the strongest formulations of the idea, and so remaining controversies are as to the extent that language does influence thought and whether experimental observations can be explained by other cultural factors.

Popular incarnations[edit]

The limitation of thought and action by the control of language is the principle behind George Orwell's "Newspeak." As Orwell explains in the appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four:

...a heretical thought - that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc - should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.

The principles of Newspeak relied on strong linguistic relativity, which does not have much empirical support as being the case. Concepts and thought are not controlled and limited by language, but they are influenced for instance in the naming of colours, language plays a key part in what colours people can describe in a single word and research suggests an order in which they are prioritised. All languages at least have words for "black" and "white", but purple and pink are often left indescribable until the language is given more terms to describe colours.[3] This doesn't mean that the very concept of those distinct colours is impossible to think about, as the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may seem to suggest. A language can always name colors for which it lacks specific terms with compounds or words for objects bearing that color (just as crayon manufacturers come up with names like orange-red and cornflower). A few languages, like the Pirahã language,Wikipedia lack specific words for anything besides light and dark, but far from being unable to view colors they simply say something looks "like blood" for red and similar. If existing color terms really constrained the way people view colors, these new terms could never appear.

Political correctness attempts a similar thing; by removing racist or sexist terminology from language use, replacing them with less offensive terms. Not least because language can develop to fill the gap (e.g., the euphemism treadmill), politically correct terms don't succeed in eradicating racist or sexist thoughts and attitudes.

A literary example of a failed attempt at instituting a Newspeak style language is found in Gene Wolfe's book The Citadel of the Autarch, the fourth and final volume of his Book of the New Sun series. Despite the Ascian languageWikipedia being composed solely of quotations from approved texts by the Ascian leaders (Ascians literally cannot understand non-canonic sentences), an Ascian prisoner is still able to tell a story by creatively stringing together particular quotes. The episode "Darmok" from Star Trek: The Next Generation is built on a similar premise, where the Tamarian language consists only of allegories. You could call this the Sapir-Worf hypothesis.

Eskimo snow[edit]

One common and oft-repeated claim holds that the "Eskimo language" has a rich vocabulary for snow that English is supposed to lack. Its origin can be tracked down to the writings of the anthropologist Franz Boas (who also came up with the idea of cultural relativism):[4]

Another example of the same kind, the words for SNOW in Eskimo, may be given. Here we find one word, aput, expressing SNOW ON THE GROUND; another one, qana, FALLING SNOW; a third one, piqsirpoq, DRIFTING SNOW; and a fourth one, qimuqsuq, A SNOWDRIFT.

In fairness to Boas, it must be stated that he's not the real villain of the story. This is all he said about Eskimo and it was in a wider setting. The culprit is Benjamin Whorf.Wikipedia He took Boas' remarks and expanded them to become a longish speculation about Eskimo culture and increased the words for snow to at least seven — i.e., he mentioned seven and hinted there were more (1940). The rest is really history. The original four words Boas inaccurately mentioned increased their number exponentially, became an urban legend and are now cited without further thought in classes like Management, even Linguistics and absolutely without scruples as about 100 in a New York Times editorial, about 200 in a Cleveland weather forecast and so on. We can thank Geoffrey Pullum for these details. He tried without avail to kill the legend in his 1989 article „The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax“, following up on a similar but failed attempt by Laura Martin in 1986.[5]

Part of the issue may be the nature of the Inuit-Yupik language familyWikipedia to which the several "Eskimo" languages belong; their polysynthetic nature turns what would be a phrase like "drifting snow" in English into a single word. And besides, who says English is poor in words for snow? Ask a skier or another winter sports aficionado. English has in fact elaborated itself a rich vocabulary for different kinds of snow, one that is similar to and might map onto the "Eskimo" classification. The critical difference is how much attention you pay to snow; or compare also the elaborate lexicon used by wine fanciers to judge the tastes they find in wines.

Linguists actually reconstruct only three root words for "snow" in the Proto-Inuit-Yupik language:[6] *qaniɣ 'falling snow', *aniɣu 'fallen snow', and *apun 'snow on the ground'. These three stems are found in all Inuit languages and dialects - except for West Greenlandic which lacks aniɣu.[7][8]

However, some languages, such as many in the Saami family, actually appear to have a large number of terms for snow [9][10]. It has also been claimed that Swedish, Scots, and Icelandic have a large number of words for snow. Scots, in particular, is sometimes claimed rather dubiously to have 421 words for snow. This was from people trying to make a Scots Thesaurus at the University Of Glasgow. However, the statements of Susan Rennie, a researcher on the team, to The Daily Telegraph states that many of these words are not for types of snow, but are only thematically related to snow. [11]Only a few words in any of the languages are considered to refer to falling snow, with the rest being more accurately words for snow on the ground. There is even some interest that certain Inuit-Yupik languages may have more words for snow, though that is heavily debated. Based on research by Igor Krupnik, it appears there might be about as many words for snow as Boaz said originally. [12]

Hopi time controversy[edit]

Whorf may be most famous, at least among linguists, for his poorly thought out, bullshit assertion controversial claim that since the Hopi language had (so he thought) no grammar for linear time, the Hopi people must not have any sense of time, leading to what has since become known as the Hopi time controversy.Wikipedia The idea was fueled by popular stereotypes concerning noble savages and similar received ideas. If the Hopi had no conception of linear time, their perception of the world must be one of cosmic oneness, mystical and alien to our own experience where linear time is very much a reality.

This was obviously wrong a tough sell. Or at least it should have been, given the simple fact that the Hopi people have been farming for 2,000 years[13] which is generally not possible if you do not understand how to use a calendar. In fact, the idea became popular until it was eventually (and definitively) refuted by linguist Ekkehart MalotkiWikipedia in a lengthy research document entitled, Hopi Time, which demonstrated two things: 1) That the Hopi langue does have grammar for linear time (which Whorf simply hadn't observed or noted), and 2) That the Hopi do indeed conceptualize time in a linear fashion because they have a fucking calendar.[14]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Lewis, Martin. The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part II. Dec. 13, 2013
  2. Whorf was a chemical engineer by training and never passed the amateur stage in linguistics, noble though it may be to have interests.
  3. Purple is not a native English word; it was borrowed from Latin purpura, which ultimately is from Greek. Pink was the name of a flower before it was the name of a color; compare French rose, "pink".
  4. Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man. 1911. pp. 145-146.
  5. Pullum, Geoffrey. The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax (1989)
  6. Michael Fortescue, Steven Jacobson, and Lawrence Kaplan. 1993. Comparative Eskimo Dictionary with Aleut Cognates, Fairbanks, Alaska Native Language Center
  7. Pullum closes his article with a reference to West Greenlandic, telling the reader, when he next hears this legend, to stand up and tell the speaker that West Greenlandic only has two possibly relevant roots. Then ask, if the speaker knows any more.
  8. Lawrence Kaplan, 2003. Inuit Snow Terms: How Many and What Does It Mean? In: Building Capacity in Arctic Societies: Dynamics and shifting perspectives. Proceedings from the 2nd IPSSAS Seminar. Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada: May 26-June 6, 2003, ed. by François Trudel. Montreal: CIÉRA -- Faculté des sciences sociales Université Laval.
  9. Alison Kroulek. The Language Blog, December 19, 2015, retrieved from
  10. Gaston Dorren (2015) Lingo. Atlantic Monthly Press.
  11. Emily Gosden. Snaw-pouther or flindrikin? Scots' 421 words for snow, The Daily Telegraph, 23 September 2015, retrieved from
  12. David Robinson. There Really Are 50 Eskimo Words For Snow, Washington Post, January 14, 2013
  13. Christopher Kuzdas. What 2,000 years of traditional Hopi farming in the arid Southwest can teach about resilience, Environmental Defense Fund, December 20, 2019, retrieved from
  14. Hopi Time: A Linguistic Analysis of the Temporal Concepts of the Hopi Language by Ekkehart Malotki (1983) Mouton. Trends in Linguistics Studies and Monographs 20. ISBN 9027933499.