Linguistic Relativity by ashley driscoll

What is linguistic relativity?

It has to do with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, formulated in 1929 by Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir.

The hard version: Linguistic Determinism

• The language we speak directly determines the way we think.

The soft version: Linguistic Relativity

• The language we speak influences the way we think but doesn’t necessarily limit us or change our capacity for language.

Sapir and Whorf studied the Hopi language and found...

Unique verb tenses and noun categorization-->

Unique understanding of time and objects’ relationships to each other-->

Unique brain processing and language limitations

The hard version of this theory has been generally discredited due to it’s circularity and lack of evidence, the question of Linguistic Relativity still remains. Researchers today are still trying to determine the relationship between language, culture, and brain processing. We will be discussing some modern studies today to see what progress has been made in the field. We will focus on "structural relativity", which has to do with language structure and not brain activity.

Example 1: Yucatec, John A. Lucy

Fast facts:

  • Spoken in southeastern Mexico by an indigenous group
  • About 350,000 speakers (1992)
  • Categorizes nouns based on material composition, which implies gender and number

‘un-túul k’éek’ –en’ ‘one/a live pig’

‘um-p’éel k’éek’-en’ ‘one/a whole pig (dead or alive)’

‘um-píit k’éek’-en’ ‘a-little-bit-of/some pork’

‘um-šéet’ k’éek’-en’ ‘one/a piece/shred of pork’


  • The words ‘um’ all denote ‘one/a’ and ‘k’éek’-en’ always denotes ‘pork’, but the word in between distinguishes the size, composition, and quantity of the pork.
  • By using the same noun for all four objects, Yucatec requires short modifiers that contain a plethora of linguistic information: the size, animateness, and quantity of an object. Otherwise there would be no difference between the above examples. The modifiers serve as multiple adjectives/prepositions at once.
  • Different classifiers are used for animate versus inanimate objects, creating a binary. The word ‘k’éek’en’ itself is neutral; with the classifier, the two combined words make ‘k’éek’en’ animate and singular.


  • Animateness is better defined as ‘[+mobile] [+self-segmenting]’ since things like trucks and buttons can take the ‘animate’ classifier ‘túul’. They aren’t alive as much as they are autonomous, or at least appear to be so to the Yucatec.
  • Their concept of numbers is included in their classifiers, therefore they classify items on a scale of size and number, without specific numbers.

Example 2: Algonkian, Mo káa

Fast Facts:

  • Spoken in the Northeast and Midwest of the US
  • Number of speakers of Algonkian is difficult to determine because of the variety of dialects and the diaspora of tribes
  • Categorizes nouns based on animateness or inanimateness

animate objects: snow, trees, people, snowshoes, rocks, cars, fruits, animals

inanimate objects: mocassins, houses, seeds, body parts, pots and pans


  • The Algonkians use the same personal pronouns for animals and tobacco, treating them less like objects than their European counterparts who would use ‘it’ instead of ‘he/she’.
  • Káa points out that perceiving Algonkian categories through an English-speaking worldview would direct a person to define animate as ‘alive’ and inanimate as ‘unliving’ . Káa tries to redefine the Algonkian’s labels, putting them on a scale of less or “more spiritually relevant and personalized beings, things, and phenomena”. Therefore, animate objects are ‘more special’ while inanimate are ‘more common’.
  • Overall, the Algonkians’ logic appears to be more naturalistic, so their categorization of nouns matches their worldview. Ultimately, their language and worldview influence each other.


  • The Algonkians don’t think of death as a final state. An animate person simply decays after he or she dies, but never loses his or her animateness. If trees, animals, people, and some everyday objects contain life force, death is only a continuation of life in another world.
  • The Algonkians hold trees and plants in high regard. The European man might just see a tree, but the Algonkian appreciates that each tree is unique and worthy of respect because it contains life.
  • Any objects associated with animate objects are considered animate. For example: showshoes. Snow comes from the Great Spirit, making it special. Mocassins, on the other hand, are common.

Why I chose these studies

Many studies about linguistic relativity require participants to complete linguistic tasks and then measure their perception based on their use of language. By directly correlating language and worldview in linguistic tasks, we are making assumptions about how language affects the brain. These two studies instead dissected the languages' structures before attempting to understand their effects on the cultures. They measured non-linguistic tasks more than linguistic ones. Research was conducted before assumptions were made about brain activity or culture, unlike many studies that draw injudicious direct correlations.

So, what is the relationship between language and culture?

  • It is a mutual relationship where both influence each other, sometimes equally, sometimes not.
  • Certain languages emphasize certain concepts differently than English speakers might, leading to different nominal categorization. These variations have nothing to do with brain processes, according to these studies.
  • Speakers of drastically different languages are fully able to communicate and understand the world within their own contexts.

What can we learn from these studies?

  • Consider how our languages shapes our worldview whether it defines our concept of life, matter, or gender.
  • Be cautious not to deem other languages ‘illogical’ according to our own worldview, since each language has different priorities and purposes.
  • Consider other perspectives! They can open up our own understanding and encourage us to not limit our perceptions. Appreciating other perspectives also allows us to empathize and connect with other peoples.

Everett, Caleb. (2013). Linguistic Relativity: Evidence Across Languages and Cognitive Domains. Germany: Walter de Gruyter GmbH

Káa, Mo. (1976). Universalism versus Relativism in Language and Thought. The Netherlands: Mouton and Co.

Lucy, John A. (1992). Grammatical Categories and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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