Linguistic relativity

Linguistic relativity is the hypothesis that the structure of a language people use every day must have an influence on how they perceive the world. In a weak version of this idea, it means that we do not only talk in a given language, but we also think to a certain extent about the world using the categories provided by this language. A strong version of this idea states that “language determines thought”, which means that people can only think in the categories which are provided by the language.

One of the examples which is frequently quoted to support this idea is based on a great number of expressions the Eskimos have for talking about a word which in English is described as snow. English speakers, looking at wintry scenes, each time categorize a single white entity as snow. However, the Eskimos are said to distinguish many different types of snow because they have expressions for all of them.

Such perspective is part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which became known in the middle of 20th century. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf stated that the languages of native Americans, for example the Hopi, led them to perceive the world in a different way from those who spoke European languages. In the Hopi’s grammar, there is a distinction between ‘inanimate’ and ‘animate’, and within the second group there are clouds and stones. Whorf argued that clouds and stones are living entities for the Hopi, because it was determined by their language. In English, the grammar does not suggest that clouds and stones are ‘animate’, so the speakers of English do not view the world in the same way as the Hopi.

We inherit language which is used to report knowledge, so it is obvious that language will influence the organization of the knowledge in some way. Still, we also inherit the ability to be creative with language to express our perceptions. If perception and thinking were completely determined by language, the idea of language change would be impossible. If a young Hopi boy had no word in his language to describe computer, would he fail to perceive it? Would he be unable to think about this object? The fact is, that when people encounter a new entity, they change their language in order to accommodate the need to describe a new entity. It is the human that manipulates the language, not the other way round.


This article was based on the book ‘The Study of Language’ by George Yule.

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Zespół Tłumaczy K. Litwin, J. Czernia S.C.