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Social dialectology


comparative linguistics
historical linguistics
Noam Chomsky
Lancelot Thomas Hogben

The methodology of generative grammar was first applied to dialectology in

the 1960s, when the use of statistical means to measure the similarity or
difference between dialects also became increasingly common. The most
important development of that time, however, was the rapid growth of
methods for investigating the social variation of dialects; social variation, in
contrast to geographic variation, is prominent in the United States, above all in
large urban centres. In cities such as New York, a whole scale of speech
variation can be found to correlate with the social status and educational level
of the speakers. In addition, age groups exhibit different patterns, but such
patterns of variation differ from one social stratum to another. Still another
dimension of variation, especially important in the United States, is connected
with the race and ethnic origin of a speaker as well as with the speakers date
of immigration. So-called Black English, or African American English, has
been influenced by the southeastern U.S. origin of most of the African
American population of nonsouthern U.S. regions: many Black English
peculiarities are in reality transplanted southeastern dialectal traits.
Normally, speakers of one of the social dialects of a city possess at least
some awareness of the other dialects. In this way, speech characteristics also
become subjectively integrated into the system of signs indicating social
status. And, in seeking to enhance their social status, poorer and less
educated speakers may try to acquire the dialect of the socially prestigious.
Certain groupse.g., African Americans and the working classhowever, will,
under certain conditions, show a consciousness of solidarity and a tendency
to reject members who imitate either the speech or other types of behaviour of
models outside their own social group.
As a consequence of an individuals daily contacts with speakers of the
various social dialects of a city, elements of the other dialects are
imperceptibly drawn into his dialect. The collective result of such experiences
is the spread of linguistic variablesi.e., groups of variants (sounds or
grammatical phenomena) primarily determined by social (educational, racial,
age, class) influences, an example being the existence of the two forms He
dont know and the standard He doesnt know. Traits representing variables

in intergroup relations can become variable features in the speech of

individuals as well; i.e., an individual may employ two or more variants for the
same feature in his own speech, such as seeing and seein or he dont
and he doesnt. The frequency of usage for each variable varies with the
individual speaker as well as with the social group. There are intermediate
stages of frequency between different social groups and entire scales of
transitions between different age groups, thus creating even greater variation
within the dialect of an individual. The variables also behave differently in the
various styles of written or spoken language used by each speaker.

ideal type
international relations
forensic anthropology
comparative law
information science
disability studies
cultural anthropology

The study of variables is one of the central tasks of any investigation of the
dialects of American cities. Applying the statistical methods of modern
sociology, linguists have worked out investigative procedures sharply different
from those of traditional dialectology. The chief contributor was William Labov,
the pioneer of social dialectology in the U.S. The basic task is to determine
the correlation between a group of linguistic variablessuch as the different
ways of pronouncing a certain voweland extralinguistic variables, such as
education, social status, age, and race. For a reasonable degree of statistical
reliability, one must record a great number of speakers. In general, several
examples of the same variable must be elicited from each individual in order
to examine the frequency and probability of its usage. Accordingly, the number
of linguistic variables that can be examined is quite limited, in comparison with
the number of dialectal features normally recorded by traditional fieldworkers
in rural communities; in these situations, the investigator is often satisfied with
one or two responses for each feature.


ience Quiz

A completely new, flexible, and imaginative method of interviewing is needed

for such work in urban centres, as well as new ways of finding and making
contact with informants. One example is Labovs method for testing the fate of
final and preconsonantal r in speakers of different social levels. Choosing
three New York City department stores, each oriented to a completely different
social stratum, he approached a large number of salesladies, asking each of
them about the location of a certain department that he knew to be on the
fourth floor. Thus, their answers always contained two words with potential rs
fourth and floor. This shortcut enabled Labov to establish in a relatively
short time that the salesladies in the store with richer customers clearly
tended to use r-full forms, whereas those in the stores geared to the poorer
social strata more commonly used r-less forms.


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Social dialectology has focused on the subjective evaluation of linguistic

features and the degree of an individuals linguistic security, phenomena that
have considerable influence on linguistic change. Linguistic scientists, in
studying the mechanism of such change, have found that it seems to proceed
gradually from one social group to another, always attaining greater frequency
among the young. Social dialectology also has great relevance for a society
as a whole, in that the data it furnishes will help deal with the extremely
complex problems connected with the speech of the socially underprivileged,
especially of minority groups. Thus, the recent emphasis on the speech of
minority groups, such as the Black English of American cities, is not a chance
phenomenon. Specific methods for such investigation are being developed, as
well as ways of applying the results of such investigation to educational


Sociolinguistic variation
Author: David Britain
Dr David Britain

This article outlines the main methodological and theoretical issues within research on sociolinguistic
variation. It covers the origins of the subject, data collection, quantification and the linguistic variable,
correlations of social and linguistic variation and language change. It ends by considering recent social
constructionist approaches to variation and change. A bibliography is included.

Table of contents


Data collection

Quantification: the linguistic variable

Social variation

Language change

Teaching sociolinguistic variation

Looking forward in sociolinguistic variation


Related links

Sociolinguistic variation is the study of the way language varies (see also the article on Dialectology) and
changes (see Historical linguistics) in communities of speakers and concentrates in particular on the
interaction of social factors (such as a speaker's gender, ethnicity, age, degree of integration into their
community, etc) and linguistic structures (such as sounds, grammatical forms, intonation features, words,
The study of sociolinguistic variation has its roots in dialectology, emerging in the 1960s partly as a result
of inadequate methods in earlier approaches to the study of dialect, and partly as a reaction to Chomsky's
generative programme. Unlike earlier forms of dialectology, it uses recordings of informal conversations
as its data (and occasionally reading exercises to examine the role of formality in dialect use); argues for
the role of quantitative analysis in highlighting dialect differences; and is interested in how social groups
variably select different dialect forms. This article outlines some of these important issues and suggests
the salient topics that should be taught in a course on this subject.

Data collection
Like in dialectology, data collection and fieldwork play an important role in the study of sociolinguistic
variation since its advocates argue both that it is the only way to accurately gain a picture of a person's

language use (see Labov 1996 on the inadequacy of intuition as a source of information on language
structure) and that the most systematic grammar of a dialect resides in the vernacular language of the
speech community (Labov 1972). Great care is taken, therefore, to establish corpora of ethical recordings
collected in relaxed circumstances from a wide range of speakers in the community (see also the article
on Dialectology). Students of sociolinguistic variation can gain valuable insight into the subject by
conducting their own research: through rapid anonymous surveys (short surveys investigating one
linguistic feature from many people in a short space of time) (Labov 1972) and subsequently through
tape-recorded data collection and analysis in a relevant community. Milroy (1987) and Milroy and Gordon
(2003) provide useful introductions to fieldwork methodology for sociolinguistic variation.

Quantification: the linguistic variable

Data from recordings of informal speech enable researchers to collect many examples of the same
feature from each speaker recorded. Within a single person's speech some linguistic features vary - i.e.
they are pronounced in more than one way. Sometimes, for example, a speaker from London may drop
the /h/ in the word 'house' and, later, even in the same stretch of talk, that same speaker may retain it.
Linguists also soon recognised that social groups in the speech community may differ from each other not
qualitatively, by using completely different dialect forms from each other, but quantitatively, by using
different proportions of dialect variants in their speech. The American sociolinguist, William Labov (e.g.
1972) devised the notion of the linguistic variable to help capture this idea of quantitative difference. A
linguistic variable is a set of related dialect forms all of which mean the same thing and which correlate
with some social grouping in the speech community. One linguistic variable in many parts of England is (t)
- note that variables are written in parentheses - which can be realised (among other ways) as an alveolar
stop - the standard pronunciation - or a glottal stop - a non-standard pronunciation. Analysts can scour a
recording of a particular dialect speaker, noting the number of times a relevant example of (t) is
pronounced as an alveolar stop and the number of times as a glottal stop, and derive a 'score' for that
speaker which reflects his or her use of the non-standard dialect form. This speaker's scores can then be
compared with those of other speakers, and, similarly, scores for men can be aggregated and compared
with scores for women, scores for, say, working class speakers compared with those for middle class
speakers and so on. Figure 1 provides an example.

Figure 1: The linguistic variable, exemplified in an analysis of (t)

Furthermore, it has been recognised that these quantitative differences can be very salient indeed to
speakers themselves - so much so that even a difference of a few percent in usage can lead to the
association of a particular linguistic form with a particular social group. Figure 2 shows the results of an
analysis of High Rising Tones (HRT) (using question intonation in statements) in New Zealand English
(NZE) (Britain 1998). In NZE the use of HRT is very strongly associated with young women, yet they only
use the HRT 3% percent more often than young men. Clearly small quantitative differences can signal
quite important social information about a linguistic variable.

Figure 2: The use of High Rising Terminals in New Zealand English

(based on Britain 1998)

Social variation
The sociolinguistic variationist enterprise begins on the premise that dialect variation is far from free or
haphazard, but is governed by what Weinreich, Labov and Herzog (1968) called 'orderly heterogeneity' structured variation. This 'structure' is manifested in a number of ways, most notably in the regular
patterns found when sociolinguists correlate social structure with linguistic structure. One typical pattern
found for dialect features that are stable (i.e. not undergoing change) is exemplified in Figure 3. Figure 3
shows the correlation of the absence of third person present tense marking (e.g. 'she play', 'the boy sing')
with social class membership in the city of Norwich in England (Trudgill 1974) - the 'higher' the social
class of the speaker, the lower the absence of -s marking. Another very frequently noted pattern is the
tendency for women to use standard forms of stable dialect features more than men. Figure 4, again
from Trudgill's (1974) research in Norwich, looks at the results of the correlation of social class, speaker
sex and the use of non-standard [n] variants of unstressed -ing suffixes. Within each social class group,
women consistently use less of the non-standard pronunciation than men. It is the regularity of these (and
other) patterns that lends weight to the argument that variability is 'structured' socially (and in other ways see, for example,Chambers and Trudgill 1998, Chambers 2003)

Figure 3: Absence of third person present tense marking in

Norwich (Trudgill 1974)

Figure 4: The use of the non-standard [n] variant of the variable

(ing) in Norwich (Trudgill 1974)

Language change

Labov's intention when establishing sociolinguistic variation as an approach to investigating language was
not simply to make what in many cases appear to be obvious correlations between social factors and
language use, but to demonstrate how language changes spread through society. He showed
(see Labov 1972, Chambers and Trudgill 1998, Chambers 2003 for examples), by carefully plotting a
speaker's social position alongside their use of linguistic variables, that linguistic changes tended to be
led by certain social groups - not by the lowest or highest social classes in society as we might expect,
but by the central groups - the upper working and lower middle classes. Labov found that upper working
class speakers tended to be the leaders of unconscious linguistic changes that were more common in
casual speech, and that the lower middle class led changes towards overtly prestigious standard forms.
Language changes, of course, take time, and one question that vexed linguists was how to observe
changes in progress given that they take so long. It was previously assumed that change could only be
observed retrospectively, after different states of the dialect had been observed at different points in time
and comparisons made subsequent to several observations. Labov simulated a broad time span by
adopting a so-called apparent-timemethod. He compared speakers of different ages (who had acquired
language at different points in time) instead of comparing people of a particular age now with those of that
same age 20, 40 etc years ago. Naturally, this method shortens the length of time required to conduct the
research, but questions have been raised about this method since it assumes that people's dialect
remains fairly stable from adolescence onwards (see Chambers 2003 and Eckert 1997 for differing views
on the apparent time model).

Teaching sociolinguistic variation

It is important that students of sociolinguistic variation gain experience of the discipline from the both
methodological and theoretical perspectives. From the theoretical point of view, the central role of
the linguistic variable in such research should be emphasised, along with a demonstration of
the quantitative mechanics of the variable, and its importance in shedding light on relative differences
in use of dialect variants by both individuals, groups and communities. The relationship between social
factors and the use of dialect variants should be explored, to demonstrate that variability is not
haphazard, but structured and motivated. The relationship between language variation and language
change should be made clear, along with the pivotal role in sociolinguistic variation studies of the
apparent time method for detecting ongoing change. Methodologically, it is important that students are
required to engage in data collection and analysis both of which enhance understanding of the link
between real people (from whom the data are collected) and the somewhat abstract notion of the
variable. From recordings of self-collected data, students could be required to: extract adequate numbers
of tokens of a relevant linguistic variable; engage in a simple quantitative analysis; discuss the

relationship between the use of different variants and the social background of speakers, as well as
contextualise the results of their analysis by assessing language variation and change within a broader
local, regional or national context.

Looking forward in sociolinguistic variation

The model of analysing language variation and change that Labov developed has been extremely popular
and has been applied to many speech communities around the world. Recent approaches, however,
whilst accepting the basic framework (e.g. the linguistic variable), have suggested that sociolinguistic
variation studies have been sociologically nave by correlating isolated social facts about a speaker (e.g.
their gender, their social class, their ethnicity) with language use, rather than observing how social groups
form and evolve and analysing the dialect that emerges from that social practice. So rather than saying
'here are some broad social categories, let's look at the language use of each category' (a top-down
approach) researchers are beginning to propose that we say 'let's examine self-forming social groups and
see if these groupings are reflected in linguistic structure' (a bottom-up approach). One researcher who
has taken this latter approach is Penny Eckert (2001). She engaged in extensive ethnographic fieldwork
in a secondary school in Detroit in order to gradually piece together a picture of who hung out with who,
who were the central members and the less central members of the emergent groups and so on. She was
then able to plot group membership against a large number of linguistic variables. Her research is
particularly important in making us realise just how gross categories such as 'female' or 'adolescent' or
'working class' are, lumping together very different people into the same group, and that a sensitivity to
how real groups of people are formed and maintained provides a very rich seam for future sociolinguistic

Britain, D. (1998). Linguistic change in intonation: the use of High Rising Terminals in New Zealand
English. In P. Trudgill & J. Cheshire (eds.), The Sociolinguistics Reader: Volume 1: Multilingualism and
Variation. 213-239. London: Arnold.
Chambers, J. (2003). Sociolinguistic Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.
Chambers, J. & P. Trudgill (1998). Dialectology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eckert, P. (1997). Age as a sociolinguistic variable. In F. Coulmas (ed). The Handbook of
Sociolinguistics. 151-167. Oxford: Blackwell.
Eckert, P. (2001). Linguistic variation as social practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic Patterns. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, W. (1996). When intuitions fail. Chicago Linguistic Society: Papers from the Parasession on
Theory and Data in Linguistics 32:76-106.
Milroy, L. (1987). Observing and Analysing Natural Speech. Oxford: Blackwell.
Milroy, L. & M. Gordon (2003). Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell.
Trudgill, P. (1974). The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Weinreich, U., W. Labov & M. Herzog (1968). Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In
W. Lehmann & Y. Malkiel (eds.), Directions for historical linguistics. 97-195. Austin: University of Texas

Related links
Telsur Project at the Linguistics Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania

Details of a large survey of language variation and change in North American English, directed by
Professor William Labov, recognised as the founder of sociolinguistic variation studies.

Referencing this article

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American Sociolinguist William Labov, whose interests include variational
sociolinguistics and dialectology.

What was he researching?

Labov was interested in phonological variation. He investigated the /au/ and /ai/ vowel
sounds, in words such as mouse and mice, which in linguistic terms is called
a diphthong.


Marthas Vineyard, a small island off the North east coast of America. At the time, the
island had a population of approximately 5,800, however it is important to note that
during the summer months this figure would swell as it was a popular holiday resort for
up to 60,000 Americans.

His Research Method:

Labov interviewed 69 people, each from different age, ethnic and social groups as to
get a representative sample. Rather than getting his informants to read simple word
lists, Labov used an interview technique to subtly encourage the participants to say the
words containing the vowels which he wished to study. By using this research method
Labov tried to avoid demand characteristics and make the conversation as
natural as possible so that the participants didnt necessarily know what Labov was
looking for

Example questions from Labovs interviews:

When we speak of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of

happiness, what does right mean? Is it in writing?
If a man is successful at a job he doesnt like, would you still
say he was a successful man?

These kind of questions subconsciously urge the participants to use

words which contained the desired vowels, such as life, might,
right, etc.

What did he find out?

Labov found that the pronunciation of certain vowel sounds were subtly changing from
the standard American pronunciations and noted that locals had a tendency to
pronounce these diphthongs with a more central point, more like [u, i].
Fishermen centralize /au/ and /ai/ more than any other occupational
This was done subconsciously, in order to establish and identify themselves
as Vineyarders, an independent social group rejecting the norms of mainland
America which was bought over by the summer holiday makers.
People of the age group 30- 60 tend to centralize diphthongs more
than younger or older people
This was a move from the standard American norms emerged, particularly in
the younger speakers of this bracket between the ages of 31-45, towards a
pronunciation associated with the fishermen.
Up-Islanders used the centralized diphthongs more than people
living in the area of Down-Island
Down island (East) was much more densely populated and favoured by
summer visitors, whilst Up island (West) had many more original inhabitants
and was much more rural.

A big factor to consider when discussing the cause of these differences in

pronunciations in Marthas Vineyard is largely down to the attitude of its inhabitants;

The heaviest users of this type of centralised pronunciation of diphthongs were young
men who sought to identify themselves as native Vineyarders, rejecting the values and
speech style of the mainland.
The fishermen in particular also resented the influx of wealthy summer visitors and were
antipathetic to their presence as they believed it infringed on their traditional way of

island life. This, in turn, encouraged the Vineyarders to establish a somewhat nonstandard dialect and retain their social identity.
The tight knit community subconsciously ensured that they created a linguistic divide
between them and us. The fishermen were seen to epitomise desirable values, which in
turn caused other Vineyarders to adhere to a similar style of pronunciation.
For these Vineyarders, the new pronunciation was an innovation. As more and more
people came to speak in the same way, the innovation gradually became the norm for
those living on the island and was established as a dialect.
Therefore, there seems to be enough evidence to state that generations, occupations,
or social groups might be a big factor in language use as a sociolinguistic consideration.
A suitable hypothesis for further investigation is:

People with a more positive attitude towards Marthas

Vineyard would show more centralization than people
who had a negative attitude towards it


Diphthong: Two vowel sounds occuring in the same syllable e.g cow, eye
Centralised diphthong: Diphthongs articulated with the tongue body in the centre
of the mouth
Demand Charactieristics: A demand characteristic is a subtle cue that makes
participants aware of what the experimenter expects to find or how participants are
expected to behave. Demand characteristics can change the outcome of an experiment
because participants will often alter their behavior to conform to the experimenters
Dialect: A variety of langauge distingused from other varieties of the same langauge
by features of phonology, grammar and vocabulary. A dialect is distinguished by its
speakers, and their geographic and social whereabouts
Phonological Change: Any sound change which alters the number or distribution of
phonemes in a language over time
William Labov, known as the father of Sociolinguistics and also Linguistics Professor at
University of Pensylvania, talks about his researches and some of the most discussed
definitions of Sociolingistic terms.
LETRA MAGNA - What has been your line of research lately or to what are you

LABOV - My current research is divided into two parts. I am continuing the study of
language change, preparing a third volume on Principles of Linguistic Change: cognitive
factors. Much of this will proceed from the findings of the Atlas of North American
English, which will appear this year. I am now finishing an article on "The Transmission
of Linguistic Structure from Place to Place" which will attempt to fit together the family
tree and wave model of change.
The other half of my work is devoted to developing methods of improving the reading of
elementary school children in inner city schools, a major problem in the United States.
My most recent paper, "What is a reading error?" is available on my home page Further
information on both of these directions of research can be found on my home page.
LETRA MAGNA - Tell us something about your experience with foreign
languages studies, in terms of different sources and ways of seeing the same

LABOV - Much of my work in the past has been within monolingual speech
communities, but our reading research has encountered major differences between
Latino children and others. The effects of learning to read in Spanish (as opposed to
English) have profound results in the child's approach to decoding, reinforcing
confidence in the alphabet. For example, Latino children who learned to read in Spanish
first apply the soft-c rule in English unhesitatingly, while others simply do not use it to
read words like CENT and CERTAINLY.
LETRA MAGNA - Your name is acclaimed everywhere and your serious attitude
toward language has inspired many linguists around the word. What would
be yoursuggestions or counseling to the young linguists arising from countries
in development? Which paths should they follow to deepen language researches

LABOV - There are two major directions of linguistic research today. One is to discover
the universal properties of the language facultythe search for Universal Grammar in
Chomsky's terms. This is a very important aspect of linguistic study, and I try to draw
upon the results of this work as much as I can. The other direction is to examine those
aspects of language that are not universal: that can and do change. There are many
deep problems associated with such changes, since they often interfere with the
primary communicative function of language, and our understanding of human nature
will be advanced if we can come to grips with the causes of change. I believe that
studies of language change and variation have demonstrated a cumulative character,
which enable us to build upon the works of our predecessors and colleagues. But they
cannot be pursued without reference to the more abstract, structural character of
language. For those who would like to make a permanent contribution to our knowledge
both aspects of language study. Many sociolinguistic studies tend to work with isolated
elements of language and do not make contact with linguistic theory. The algebra that

underlies the surface of language must be incorporated into any studies of linguistic
change and variation, in order to arrive at a full understanding of the causes of linguistic

LETRA MAGNA - How do you define today the term "Social Identity"?
LABOV - The term "social identity" can refer to a wide range of social attributes, which
will vary in importance from one society to another. Social class is more salient in Britain
than in the U.S. Race is of overwhelming importance in the U.S. more so than in Brazil.
societies and cultures, "local identity" is an important aspect of social life in regulating
access to local rights and privileges (housing, hunting and fishing privileges, local
variances and permits, etc.) There is a tendency in much sociolinguistic writing to
automatically interpret each local feature of speech as a symbol of local identity.
When it is said that the use of a certain linguistic variable is an assertion of local identity,
this is often saying no more than "this is how people speak in that locality." If a linguistic
feature is to be interpreted as a mark of social identity, it is important to show that
people actually assign that identity when they hear that feature used. Subjective

LETRA MAGNA - How does discourse (connected stretches of speech or

writing) differ from one group to another ?
LABOV - This is still an open question. Students of Conversational Analysis tend to
argue that discourse patterns, and rules of turn-taking, are general across societies.
Those who study speech events in the tradition of Dell Hymes tend to emphasize the
to a given society. Researchers in pragmatics who examine anaphora and other crosssentential features are looking for general theory (like Centering Theory) but the
phenomena they examine will be specific to the syntax of a given language. In our
studies of African American language and culture, we do find particular ways of framing
constructing narratives that are specific to African Americans.
LETRA MAGNA -How do radio, television, films and popular entertainment
affect language?

LABOV - Our studies of sound changes in progress indicate that the mass media have
almost no effect on the development of every-day language, which is influenced far
more by the interaction of peers in every-day life. Passive listening to radio, television,
or teachers in school, does not appear to affect the basic machinery of language
America, regional dialects are becoming more diverse even though the mass media are
quite uniform. Actprs on television programs will often reflect changes that have taken

place in the community a generation before. The same principle applies to grammatical
innovations, like the new English verb of quotation, "be like." Rosa Saladino showed
that watching television had no effect on the replacement of dialect words with Italian.
Language shift in standard Italian and dialect: A case study Language Variation and
Change 2:57-70). The mass media may certainly have a strong influence in the diffusion
of vocabulary and phrasal idioms. It is also possible that isolated individuals can learn
second languages by long-term exposure to radio and television in that language.

LETRA MAGNA - How do social networks affect language?

LABOV - Many studies have shown that the density and multiplexity of social networks
are important factors in the diffusion of language change, or resistance to the diffusion
of change. The work of Leslie Milroy has been important in this area, and BortoniRicardo's work in Brazilian Portuguese has documented the influence of this variable.
( Bortoni-Ricardo, Stella M. 1985. The urbanization of rural dialect speakers: a
sociolinguistic study in Brazil Cambridge: University Press.) In my own study of
language change and variation in Philadelphia, a chapter on social networks reinforces
the view that language change spreads through the two-step process first documented
in Katz and Lazarsfeld's study of Personal Influence. New forms are adopted by a small
number of influential persons (leaders of linguistic change), and then spread out through
Elihu and Paul Lazarsfeld 1955. Personal Influence. Glencoe, Ill: Free Press.)
However, it is important not to overemphasize the importance of social networks in
determining language behavior. The social history of a speaker can be far more
important. If a person moves into a new area later in life, the effect of the new social
networks will be quite small in comparison with the effects of early language learning.
African Americans who move from the South into Northern Cities may become full
fledged members of the local social networks, but retain many features of their earlier
speech patterns (Labov, William and Wendell A. Harris 1986. De facto segregation of
black and white vernaculars. In D. Sankoff (ed.), Diversity and Diachrony. Philadelphia:
Social networks are best thought of as a means of fine-tuning the linguistic patterns that
LETRA MAGNA - How does education affect the features of language that people
LABOV - In many studies of social stratification, combined indices are used,
incorporating such factors as occupation, education, neighborhood, house values, and
income.) In most societies, occupation has the most powerful effects on language, more
than education. Yet when only educational data is used, one often finds consistent
correlations with sociolinguistic variables and with new linguistic changes. If the
linguistic feature is a well recognized stereotype, and discussed directly in the
Here the most important study is by Scherre and Naro, who examined the effects of
education on subject-verb agreement in Brazil. They found that the effect of education

was significant only for single and initial instances in the discourse. But whenever the
subject-verb agreement followed others in a string, the effect of serial processing that
they had documented in earlier work overwhelmed any effect of educatiton (Scherre,
Maria Marta Pereira and Naro, Anthony J. 1992. The serial effect on internal and
LETRA MAGNA - How does internet affect the features of language that people

LABOV - This is not an area where I have done any work. Many recent papers have
been given on the topic. Again, one would expect to find an influence in vocabulary,
phrases, and abbreviations, but not in the basic machinery of language. However, the
rapid growth of the Internet might lead to unexpected consequences that we cannot
LETRA MAGNA - What kind of factors cause listeners to perceive one type
of language as higher in status than another?
LABOV - This is a major topic for those engaged in the study of multilingual societies
and language planning, but I have not done any work in this area myself.

LETRA MAGNA What is the future of Sociolinguistics?

LABOV - That is largely up to you. But it seems likely that the large and diverse area
called Sociolinguistics will continue to separate into several different disciplines,
depending on its relation to the field of linguistics. Many important areas of
any detailed knowledge of language structure, but merely the ability to distinguish one
language from another. Many branches of the study of discourse have little connection
with linguistics. The particular approach to the field that I have followed is directed at
long-standing questions about the structure and evolution of language, and is intimately
involved with issues of linguistic theory. In particular, we are interested in knowing more
about the causes of linguistic change: the triggering events, the driving forces, and the
ultimate resolution of change over time. We would like to know whether the basic unit of
sound change is the word or the phoneme; whether deep-seated structures can be
transferred from one language to another. It is important to find out why so many of the
essential components that signal grammatical categories tend to disappear over time. I
would hope that the future directions of linguistics will be more and more influenced by
sociolinguistic work of this kind.
LETRA MAGNA Letra Magna, in the name of all brazilian scholars, thank you for
this great interview.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

What are some criticisms of the hypothesis?
LINGUIST Discussion of the topic
What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theory that an individual's thoughts and actions are
determined by the language or languages that individual speaks. The strong version of the
hypothesis states that all human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of
language, and is generally less accepted than the weaker version, which says that language
only somewhat shapes our thinking and behavior. Following are quotes from the two
linguists who first formulated the hypothesis and for whom it is named, Edward
Sapir and Benjamin Whorf :
"Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social
activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language
which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to
imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that
language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or
reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously
built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to
be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies
live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We see
and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of
our community predispose certain choices of interpretation." -Sapir (1958:69)
"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 kaleidoscopic flux of
impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means largely by the
linguistic systems 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 obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the
organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees." -Whorf (1940:213-14)
What are some criticisms of the hypothesis?
While linguists generally agree that the weaker Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as
linguistic relativism, can be shown to be true to some extent, there are criticisms of the
stronger form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as linguistic determinism. Among
the criticisms of the strong form of the Hypothesis are:

One of Whorf's central arguments in his paper on language determining thought was
that the Hopi terminology for time gave the Hopi a different and unique
understanding of how time worked, distinct from the typical Western conception of
time. Pinker (1994) argues that Whorf had never actually met anyone from the Hopi
tribe and that a later anthropologist discovered, in fact, the Hopi conception of time
was not so different from the traditional Western understanding of it.

The problem of translatability: if each language had a completely distinct reality

encoded within it, how could a work be translated from one language to another? Yet,
literary works, instruction manuals and so forth are regularly translated and
communication in this regard is not only possible, but happens every day.

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Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis






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In linguistics, the SapirWhorf hypothesis (SWH) states that there is a systematic relationship between
thegrammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world
and behaves in it. Although it has come to be known as the SapirWhorf hypothesis, it rather was
an axiomunderlying the work of linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and
student Benjamin Whorf.



The position that language anchors thought (thinking is shabdanA or 'languaging') was argued cogently
byBhartrihari (6th c.AD) and was the subject of centuries of debate in the Indian linguistic tradition. Related
notions in the West, such as the axiom that language has controlling effects upon thought, can be traced
toWilhelm von Humboldt's essay "ber das vergleichende Sprachstudium" (On the comparative study of
languages), and the notion has been largely assimilated into Western thought. Karl Kerenyi began
his 1976English language translation of Dionysus with this passage:
"The interdependence of thought and speech makes it clear that languages are
not so much a means of expressing truth that has already been established, but
are a means of discovering truth that was previously unknown. Their diversity is
a diversity not of sounds and signs but of ways of looking at the world."''
The origin of the SWH as a more rigorous examination of this familiar cultural perception can be traced back
to the work of Franz Boas, the founder of anthropology in the United States. Boas was educated in Germany in
the late 19th century at a time when scientists such as Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann were attempting to
understand the physiology of sensation.
One important philosophical approach at the time was a revival of interest in the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant
claimed that knowledge was the result of concrete cognitive work on the part of an individual personreality
("sensuous intuition") was inherently in flux and understanding resulted when someone took that intuition and
interpreted it via their "categories of the understanding." Different individuals may thus perceive the
samenoumenal reality as phenomenal instances of their different, individual concepts.
In the United States, Boas encountered Native American languages from many different linguistic families
all of which were quite different from the Semitic and Indo-European languages which
most European scholarsstudied. Boas came to realize how greatly ways of life and grammatical categories
could vary from one place to another. As a result he came to believe that the culture and lifeways of a people
were reflected in the language that they spoke.
Sapir was one of Boas' star students. He furthered Boas' argument by noting that languages were systematic,
formally complete systems. Thus, it was not this or that particular word that expressed a particular mode of
thought or behavior, but that the coherent and systematic nature of language interacted at a wider level with
thought and behavior. While his views changed over time, it seems that towards the end of his life Sapir came
to believe that language did not merely mirror culture and habitual action, but that language and thought might
in fact be in a relationship of mutual influence or perhaps even determination.
Whorf gave this idea greater precision by examining the particular grammatical mechanisms by which thought
influenced language. He argued his point thus:
"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 kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our
mindsand this means largely by the linguistic systems 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... all observers are not led by the same physical
evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds
are similar, or can in some way be calibrated."
(Language, Thought and Reality pp. 212214).
Whorf's formulation of this "principle of linguistic relativity" is often stereotyped as a "prisonhouse" view of
language in which one's thinking and behavior is completely and utterly shaped by one's language. While some
people might make this "vulgar Whorfian" argument, Whorf himself sought merely to insist that thought and
action were linguistically and socially mediated. In doing so he opposed what he called a "natural logic"
position which he claimed believed "talking, or the use of language, is supposed only to 'express' what is
essentially already formulated nonlinguistically" (Language, Thought and Reality p. 207). On this account, he
argued, "thought does not depend on grammar but on laws of logic or reason which are supposed to be the
same for all observers of the universe" (Language, Thought and Reality p. 208).
Whorf's close analysis of the differences between English and (in one famous instance) the Hopi
languageraised the bar for an analysis of the relationship between language, thought, and reality by relying on
close analysis of grammatical structure, rather than a more impressionistic account of the differences between,
say, vocabulary items in a language. For example, "Standard Average European" (SAE) i.e., Western
languages in general tends to analyse reality as objects in space: the present and future are thought of as a
"places", and time is a path linking them. A phrase like "three days" is grammatically equivalent to "three
apples", or "three kilometres". Other languages, including many Native American languages, are oriented
towards process. To monolingual speakers of such languages, the concrete/spatial metaphors of SAE grammar
may make little sense. Whorf himself claimed that his work on the SWH was inspired by his insight that a
Hopi speaker would find relativistic physics fundamentally easier to grasp than an SAE speaker would.
As a result of his status outside the academy Whorf's work on linguistic relativity, conducted largely in the
late1930s, did not become popular until the posthumous publication of his writings in the 1950s. In 1955, Dr.
James Cooke Brown created the Loglan constructed language (Lojban, a reformed variant of Loglan, still
exists as a living language) in order to test the hypothesis. However, no such experiment was ever conducted.
Linguistic theories of the 1960s such as those proposed by Noam Chomsky focused on the innateness and
universality of language. As a result Whorf's work fell out of favor. In the late 1980s and early 1990s advances
in cognitive psychology and anthropological linguistics renewed interest in the SWH. An example of a recent
Chomskian approach to this issue is Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct. Pinker argues from a
contravening school of thought that holds that some sort of universal grammar underlies all language. The
most extreme proponents of this theory, such as Pinker, argue that thought is independent of language, and that
language is itself meaningless in any fundamental way to human thought, and that human beings do not even
think in what is called natural language, which is to say in any of the languages that we actually speak or

write, but rather, we think in a meta-language that precedes any spoken language; this language of thought is
called mentalese. Such an idea is expounded by such cognitive psychologists and linguists as Pinker (1994)
who, referring to Whorfs radical position (p. 60), argues vehemently against the Whorfian idea that
language contains thought and culture, going so far as to declare, the more you examine Whorfs arguments,
the less sense they make (p. 60). However, Pinker does not offer any evidence to substantiate his argument
against the Whorfian viewpoint.
A more 'Whorfian' approach might be represented by authors such as George Lakoff, who have argued all
language is essentially metaphor. For instance, English employs many metaphorical tropes that in one way or
another equate time with money, e.g.:
spend time
waste time
invest time
Other languages do not make such comparisions; a Whorfian interpretation would be that this usage influences
the way English speakers conceive of the abstract quality of "time." For another example, political arguments,
are shaped by the web of conceptual metaphors that underlie language use. In political debates, it matters a
great deal whether one is arguing in favor of the "right to life" or the "right to choose"; whether one is
discussing "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers."
Today researchers disagree often intensely about how strongly language influences thought. However,
this disagreement has sparked increasing interest in the issue and a great deal of innovative and important



A possible argument against the strong ("Weltanschauung") version of this idea, that most thought is
constrained by language, can be discovered through personal experience: all people have occasional difficulty
expressing themselves due to constraints in the language, and are conscious that the language is not adequate
for what they mean. Perhaps they say or write something, and then think "that's not quite what I meant to say"
or perhaps they cannot find a good way to explain a concept they understand to a novice. This makes it clear
that what is being thought is not a set of words, because one can understand a concept without being able to
express it in words.Template:Fact However, this criticism may be countered by the argument that in a social
context, the inability to express a concept is just as much a constraint as an inability to formulate it. An idea
which cannot be expressed cannot be promulgated; cannot be used to build a group concensus; and therefore
cannot drive political action - consequently, it has as much practical social impact as if it had never been
conceived at all. Therefore, while the strong hypothesis may not hold true for an individual, it remains valid for
an entire society.
The opposite extremethat language does not influence thought at allis also widely considered to be
false.Template:Fact One study showed that, even with extensive training, adult members of a Micronesian

community whose language had only three number words: "one," "two," and "many," were unable to learn
even simple mathmatics.Template:Fact In another example, it has been shown that people's discrimination of
similar colors can be influenced by how their language organizes color names. A study with members of a
native tribe whose language had words for only three colors, "black," "white," and "red," showed a reduced
ability to identify differences in color of colored chipsTemplate:Fact. However, these results may only indicate
a reduced ability to communicate a recognized difference in color due to the influence of their language system
on their brain structure, rather than an actual lack of perception.Template:Fact.). Another study showed
that deaf children of hearing parents may fail on some cognitive tasks unrelated to hearing, while
deaf children of deaf parentssucceed, due to the hearing parents being less fluent in sign

Linguistic determinism


Among the most frequently cited examples of linguistic determinism is Whorf's study of the language of
theInuit, who were thought to have multiple words for snow. He argues that this modifies the world view of
the Inuit, creating a different mode of existence for them than, for instance, a speaker of English. The notion
thatArctic people have an unusually large number of words for snow has been shown to be false by
linguistGeoffrey Pullum; in an essay titled The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, he tracks down the origin of the
story, ultimately attributing it largely to Whorf and suggesting the triviality of Whorf's observations. (Whatever
the conclusion to the snow debate, it should be noted that Whorf's developed thought focused on ubiquitous
grammatical categories, especially covert ones, not lexical sets.)
These ideas have met with some resistance in the linguistic community. Numerous studies in color perception
across various cultures have resulted in differing viewpoints. (Berlin & Kay, 1969; Heider, 1972; Heider &
Oliver,1973; Rosch, 1974; Miller & Johnson-Laird, 1976)
Recently, however, there has been a resurgence in the idea of linguistic determinism. An important case study
by John A. Lucy on perception of numerosity in Mayan found compelling evidence for the hypothesis. Based
on grammatical analyses of the structure of both English and Mayan in a universalist grammatical framework
he ventured substantive hypotheses about the performance of speakers of both languages on a series of verbal
and non-verbal tests. His results seem to comfirm his hypotheses.
A recent study by Peter Gordon examines the language of the Pirah tribe of Brazil. According to Gordon, the
language used by this tribe only contains three counting words: one, two and many. Gordon shows through a
series of experiments that the people of the Pirah tribe have difficulty recounting numbers higher than three
(Gordon, 2004). However, the causal relationship of these events is not clear. Critics have argued that if the test
subjects are unable to count numbers higher than three for some other reason (perhaps because they are
nomadic hunter/gatherers with nothing to count and hence no need to practice doing so) then one should not
expect their language to have words for such numbers. That is, it is the lack of need which explains both the
lack of counting ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary.

Fictional presence


George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a striking example of linguistic determinism and
linguistic relativity in fiction, in which a language known as Newspeak has trimmed and supplanted Modern
English. In this case, Orwell says that if humans cannot form the words to express a revolution, then they
cannot revolt. All of the theory of Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words. For example, bad has been
replaced by ungood, and the concept of freedom has been eliminated over time.
Jack Vance's science fiction novel The Languages of Pao centers on an experiment in modeling a civilization
by tweaking its language. The future planet of Pao, inhabited by peasant cultivators who bow passively to
absolute monarchy and are prey to foreign invaders, creates three castes - of warriors, merchants, and
technicians - each with a specifically-tailored language designed to instill the appropriate skills and mindsets.
As a result the planet overcomes its foreign military invaders and economic exploiters, but becomes
dangerously divided into mutually-hostile castes - and this is overcome by developing yet another language, a
"pastiche" which combines elements from the languages of the three castes as well as the planet's original
language, this Pastiche becoming the language of the reunified, versatile society.
In Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune and its sequels, the Principle of Linguistic Relativity first
appears when a character (Jessica Atreides) with extensive linguistic training encounters a foreign tribe
(the Fremen). She is shocked by the "violence" of their language, as she believes their word choices and
language structure reflect a culture of enormous violence.
Samuel R. Delany's novel Babel-17 is centered on a fictional language that denies its speakers independent
thought, forcing them to think purely logical thoughts. This language is used as a weapon of war, because it is
supposed to convert everyone who learns it to a traitor. In the novel, the language Babel-17 is likened to
computer programming languages that do not allow errors or imprecise statements.
Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash revolves around the notion that the Sumerian language was a
programming language for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the
personification of a linguistic virus similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a
counter program or nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different tongues as a protection against
Suzette Haden Elgin's science fiction novel Native Tongue describes a patriarchal society in which the
overriding priority of the oppressed women is the secret development of a "feminist" language to aid them in
throwing off their shackles.
Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed takes place partly on a world with an anarcho-communist society
whose constructed language contains little means for expressing possessive relationships, among other
Gene Wolfe's novel The Citadel of the Autarch presents a counter-example to the SWH: one of the characters
speaks entirely in slogans, but is able to express deep and subtle meanings via context.

Ayn Rand's novel Anthem presents a collectivist dystopia where the word "I" is banned, and any that speak it
are put to death.
Ryan North's webcomic Dinosaur Comics discusses the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in its September 27th,
In Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Mike is able to do things that most other humans can't do,
and is unable to explain any of this in English, however, once others learn Martian, they start to be able to do
these things - Those concepts could only be explained in Martian.




See also




Sapir-Whorf and programming languages

Cognitive science

Language and thought

Eskimo words for snow


Walter Benjamin

Jacques Derrida

Hans-Georg Gadamer

Johann Gottfried von Herder

Wilhelm von Humboldt

Ferdinand de Saussure

Alfred Korzybski

Uku Masing

Further reading


Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. By

Benjamin Whorf, edited by John Carroll. MIT Press.

Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. By

Edward Sapir, edited by David G. Mandelbaum. University of California Press.

Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity

Hypothesis. By John A. Lucy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grammatical Categories and Cognition: A Case Study of the Linguistic Relativity

Hypothesis. By John A. Lucy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Edited by John Gumperz. Cambridge University

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. By Steven Pinker.

"What are the nine Eskimo words for snow?", 1979-02-16, The Straight Dope
Cecil Adams answers this question by saying that due to the polysynthetic nature
of Inuktitut (which he and his interrogator term "Eskimo"), it is impossible to pin

down a number of words.

"Are there nine Eskimo words for snow (revisited)?", 2001-02-02, The Straight
Dope Cecil Adams responds to criticism by listing 15 of the words
that English has for snow, concluding "Whatever may be said for the S-W
hypothesis in general, the notion that it's supported by Eskimo words for snow is

Empirical examples


Ithkuil language achieves precision and lexical diversity that exceed those of
natural languages by employing a very complex grammar. E. g. it has 81 cases, a

dozen unique morphological variables; but only uses 3600 word-roots.

E-Primeavoids the verb "to be" in terms of general semantics
non-sexist languageoften promoted on the grounds that sexist attitudes are
aided by sexist language
gender-neutral pronouns such as spivak pronouns and sie and hir
Loglan and Lojbantwo languages designed in part to test the Sapir-Whorf
Hypothesis by placing radically different constraints on speakers
Toki Pona a constructed language inspired by Taoist philosophy and intended
to shape the thought processes of its speakers

External links


Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf developed a theory of linguistics
which claims that language shapes thought. This idea lies behind
the LinguisticDeterminism of LeftWing andPostModern philosophers.
Whorf wrote (original emphasis):

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 obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by
subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement
(Whorf, B. L. (1940): Science and Linguistics, Technology Review 42(6): 22931, 247-8.)
Or see at much greater
length http://sloan.stanford.edu/mousesite/Secondary/ThoughtReality.htm.
Very relevant 2003 paper on this
topic: http://www.mpi.nl/world/pub/lang&mind_final1.pdf (very balanced, lots of
empirical evidence; strengthens SWH, but also points out its limits).
"A language that doesn't affect the way you think about programming, is not worth
knowing." - Alan J. Perlis, Epigrams in Programming
So, seeing the determinism in this idea, and the happy consonance with
CulturalMaterialism?, in order to control the thoughts of the
population LeftWing political and cultural institutions seek to enforce a particular
vocabulary on the population. Hence PoliticalCorrectness.
Of course, there is also Politically Right language. For example, it's not nice to call
people Racist. And what about CollateralDamage?? We have FreedomFighters?.
They have Terrorists. And don't mention asylum seekers, speak of Suspected Illegal
With leftist moral equivalence, you might as well go back to the stone age and
discard the concept of language. They turns saints into Hitlers, fighting against
Nazism into terrorism, etc. How about I turn the argument around to its
extreme and say 'why shouldn't people be racist against blacks, one black in
1973 did something wrong for an hour in a small rural town therefore the entire
world is justified in slaughtering all blacks' - do you agree with that logic? If
not, why?
Ultimately, these approaches lead to CulturalRelativism?. You don't want to get any of
that on you.
Interesting. While I might agree with Whorf's actual words, above, I don't see any
logical connection between those words and the implications usually drawn from
them; that is, "Language determines perception" (as claimed
on LinguisticDeterminism). Even "which claims that language shapes thought" is
actually a very weak claim, because "shapes" can be taken as weak or strong.
You probably have to be a social "scientist" to follow this kind of argument. Take it up
with your friendly neighbourhood professor of cultural studies...
Hmm. That last seems to assume the SapirWhorfHypothesis ...

Be aware that using one language to directly translate foreign cultural concepts is
fraught with problems. For instance, although Ilongot "liget" is roughly analogous to
"anger" [see
], it is not the same - and should you ask "What is the Ilongot term for 'anger'", you
have already incorrectly framed your result.
There are universal concepts, but they exist far below the level of "Culture". [Pure
linguistic relativists disagree, but they're both rare, and _wrong_ ;-]. Be aware that
even such apparently basic and universal concepts as basic shape terms and basic
colour terms are culturally relative.
Some languages conflate shape and size - Ewe has multiple words for "round",
depending on whether the object is as big as a golf ball, or a basket ball, for instance.
Still others break "long" up into such categories as "long and thin", "long and made of
wood", "long and flat", etc.
RussianLanguage has separate "light blue" and "dark blue" basic colour terms, and
mauve is apparently becoming its thirteenth (Note that EnglishLanguage has eleven
basic colour terms). Other languages have as few as two, but which colours these two
cover varies. How many colours in a rainbow? Not necessarily seven...
Same is true in Spanish: "light blue" = celeste and "dark blue" = azul. These (or
their likeness) are also English words; "celestial" = sky blue and "azure" = purplish
I was taught that while not all languages have the same amount of colour terms,
there is a standard order in which they appear. First black and white, then red, then
(IIRC) blue and green, then orange, yellow and purples. So if a language has only
three colour terms, say Ack, Oink and Sniss, 'Ack' may mean white but would also be
used for light colours like yellow, 'Oink' might cover not just black but other dark
colours as well and 'Sniss' would be red and everything not covered by Ack and Oink,
but if a NativeSpeaker? was asked to show a sniss object, he would show a redobject,
so the default, or prototype'' if you will, would be red.
Yes and no... The first two steps are pretty much fixed. It's still a bit messy, though
because which colours are in the warm set/cool set/macro-red set can vary. Then it all
gets really messy =) Yellow or Green or Grue (Green/Blue composite) splits off...
They may divide our "yellow" differently - one segment of our yellow may clump
with their grue, and another segment of their yellow may clump with their macrored... To put that another way, there are languages that have only two words for
colors. Given a choice of many colored tiles, speakers of these languages reliably
indicate that these words correspond to what english speakers call black and white.
There are languages with three words for color. In all such languages known, these
words correspond precisely to black, white and red. There are other languages with
4,5,6 color terms. Again, they have black, white and red, plus some terms from a set
of 3 colors (or so). Exactly which of the 3 they have varies, but all 6 of those colors
will be present in any language that has 6 or more terms for colors. And so on.
(Roughly speaking. Don't quote me.)
There might be a language which has no color terms, namely the Piraha language
mentioned below. It may be that colors are described on the spot (i.e. a red thing
might be described as blood-like).

What evidence is there for or against the SapirWhorfHypothesis? -- SethGordon

As I recall TheLanguageInstinct presented some solid evidence against it.
-- PhilGoodwin
As I recall TheLanguageInstinct presented solid evidence for an alternative theory
(that language is built in to our brains, which could be interpreted as thought
determines language). A key point to this theory is NoamChomsky's idea of deep
structure - that the brain works on a fixed grammar that is translated to our natural
I am not sure that this directly contradicts the SapirWhorfHypothesis, because it
seems to be related to grammar. The SapirWhorfHypothesis could apply to
vocabulary; it seems that the main target of PoliticalCorrectness is vocabulary and
not grammar. Also, even when it comes to grammar, the two theories are only
contradictory if taken to the extreme (that is, thought is the only thing determining
grammar/language is the only thing determining language.
Altogether I would not say that TheLanguageInstinct presents solid evidence against
it. -- ChrisBrooking?
While TheLanguageInstinct as a whole is a general overview of modern linguistics,
there's one particular section that presents the arguments against
the SapirWhorfHypothesis. -- MossCollum
Chapter 3 of TheLanguageInstinct is largely a refutation
of LinguisticDeterminism and the SapirWhorfHypothesis. Here is a summary of the
main points:
We are often unable to put our thoughts into words, or we say things that don't
accurately reflect what we are thinking.
When we try to remember something that we heard or read, we rarely
remember the exact words. Instead, we remember the "gist", and attempt to reconstruct the original from it.
Whorf's assertions that people who speak other languages think differently are
based upon word-for-word translations of utterances in those other languages
into English. For example, an Apache sentence meaning "He invites people to a
feast" is translated into English as "He, or somebody, goes for eaters of cooked
food." To Whorf, examples like this proved that the Apache mind had to be
fundamentally different from his own.
Whorf's claim that the Hopi have no concept of time does not stand up to
scrutiny. Studies by others have shown that Hopi speech has tense and that they
have units of time, quantifiers of time, a calendar, ceremonial day sequences,
timekeeping devices, and time-based record keeping.
Eskimo speakers do not have an incredible number of words for snow. They
have about the same number as English speakers (who
have snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, avalanche, flurry, etc.). They may even have

less words, english has borrowed from so many places. But there is not a 1:1
relationship between the words they have and the words we have.
o Sanskrit has a very diverse vocabulary for snow as well IIRC.
-- TheerasakPhotha
People who are raised without a language, and people who lose the power of
language (stroke victims or aphasiacs, for example), exhibit the capability of
thought. When language is introduced or restored to such people, they are able
to recount what they were thinking during the period when they did not have
language. Similarly, other "languageless" creatures like babies and monkeys
demonstrate the ability to reason about space, time, objects, number, rate,
causality, and categories.
"Visual thinking" is influenced by language very little, if at all.
o An observation that lasts until the moment you meet visual programming
languages and start learning graph-based approaches to problem-solving.
The TuringMachine shows that symbolic, logical reasoning can be carried out
mechanically, without any meaning ascribed to the symbols or the operations.
Thus, language is not a prerequisite for this kind of thought. This is not
thought, and it does require a formal language.
People are capable of learning one another's languages. The primary difficulties
in doing so are related to learning the words and grammar, not in attempting to
understand a different way of thinking.
o Perhaps you have not learned any languages with methods of thinking
significantly different from English, or perhaps you have not learned
them well enough to speak in those languages without constructing
sentences like a foreigner; I assure you that there are such languages,
and that if you spoke them well you would percieve a difference in
thought process.
{Or perhaps the author is implying that learning a new way of
thinking comes for free, and is, therefore, not a primary difficulty.
Not that I'm agreeing. But I do agree with: "A language that
doesn't affect the way you think about programming, is not worth
knowing." - Alan J. Perlis, Epigrams in Programming, #19}
One is left with the impression that Pinker considers Whorf to be a quack who had no
business pretending to be a scientist (there is a whiff of AdHominem attack). Pinker
does not deny that language can have some influence on thought (he calls this the
"weak" form of the hypothesis), but the influence is not as dramatic
as LinguisticDeterminism claims.

Well, yeah, I agree with the 'weak' version of the hypothesis wholeheartedly.
We can look at the 'language' of mathematics for instance, that is, the use of
physical objects and writing as a means of representing mathematical concepts.
Even before the advent of modern algebraic notation, mathematicians have
always used some kind of representation of symbols and numbers to organize
their thoughts, although they were generally not as efficient as our modern,
purely symbolic written conventions. It is interesting to note that the ancient
Chinese performed Gaussian elimination with pieces of bamboo to represent
quantities of grain. -- TheerasakPhotha
One can have thought without language, but our ability to distinguish between
unnamed concepts is relatively weak. In an unannotated domain, that is, where we
have not given names to things, we can still think, but the things we are thinking
about do not have defined boundaries. Only once we give things names do they have
distinct identity. Until then, there isn't even a fixed number of concepts, because what
is one thing from one point of view will morph into two or twenty from a different
point of view and you won't even know it is happening because you don't think of
these things as having distinct identity.
Possibly I'm subjecting myself to mysticism or maybe just seeing what I expect to see,
but I perceive that speaking a certain language makes thinking a certain way easier.
For example, theGermanLanguage almost always literally describes function with
names, and I think that native German Speakers appear to have a more scientific bent
than other cultures. I realize that this isn't evidence, but I'd like to hear other people
voice (type) their perceptions of this. -- ShaeErisson
The problem is that German culture is at least as likely to influence German people as
much as the details of the German language - Germans prize technical excellence and
scientific details, so those qualities get emphasized in German personalities. For a
contrast, look to the Japanese, whose language constructs differ greatly from
German, but who also have a strong technical/scientific bent to their current
culture -- PeteHardie
I think that language can influence thought, but we all know thought came before
language. All language really is is a way of reifying our thoughts both for our own use
(e.g., chronicles), and for transmission to others (e.g., news radio). In those cases
where a language was an inadequate means of expression, it was upgraded
accordingly. Consider the massive importation of French and Latin words
into EnglishLanguage, and Sanskrit and Pali words into ThaiLanguage. Some of this
is a matter of prestige; Anglo-Saxon obviously has a word for year (gieru?), but many
texts written in Anglo-Saxon begin with Latin, like so: Anno 1066. But that was not
the crux of it; the crux of it was the need to express technical and ecclesiastical
thoughts. And if Latin, French, Sanskrit, and Pali were not there to furnish these
words, then they would have been invented independently. Chinese texts tend to
obstinately cling to their own native vocabulary, even in the Buddhist canonical texts,
where words like 'sutra' are replaced with the native 'jing'. Are the Romans and
Chinese unique in being able to formulate their own vocabulary? Certainly not.

I definitely do not think anything like NewSpeak is sustainable in the long term, at
least not in a pure form. It would fall apart in the unguarded prole quarters and then
influence Party members afterwards. :) -- TheerasakPhotha
Hmmm, SapirWhorfHypothesis might have the causality wrong, maybe the culture
determines the form of the language. Language is fairly plastic over relatively short
periods of time. Consider how relatively easy it is to place the approximate decade of
a random sample of twentieth century speech, you'll notice that the more popular
culture tends to change relatively quickly whereas high culture changes only slowly:
(totally made up example) teen slang varies from week to week while classical radio
announcers sound the same for decades. -- LarryPrice
The idea is not that language doesn't change but that your conceptual leaps are
constrained by the language. What you can think in ten years is not what you can
think now. Consider the following exchange between a member of an alien culture
and a human space traveler: "What is this thing that you earth people
call...love?" (sorry I just couldn't resist) -- BrianEwins
But are your thoughts constrained by language, or is your language constrained by
your thoughts?
I believe that we can rewrite the quotation at the top, substituting OO for "agreement"
(and cutting out a lot of probably irrelevant chaff):
We view the world in an object oriented (OO) manner as we do, because we
agree to. Our language reflects this OO view. The OO View is absolutely
obligatory; we cannot talk at all except in OO terms.
Right, onto my analysis. First of all I believe that Worf is contradicting himself here
because in the first sentence he says that we 'Agree' to abide by the rules of an OO
view, and in the third sentence he is saying that the view is obligatory.
This aside however this statement doesn't say that thought is controlled by speech, it
says, clearly, that our speech is controlled by our thoughts, and that these thoughts are
constrained by society. It also says that once this agreement is made it is unbreakable.
I would disagree with the last part of the statement. Some forms of meditation practice
breaking down the objective/subjective barriers and this is definitely not an OO
thought form. Zen Buddhism is also an attempt at breaking the OO view of the world
(Zen Koan Paraphrase: Which is moving, the flag or the wind? Neither!).
Non-OO forms of art, such as some variations on Jazz and abstract paintings are also
methods of escaping this system. Schizophrenics may also have transcended this view,
possibly through damage to the portion of the brain responsible for categorization.
Anyway, this is probably enough for you all to rip me to shreds on, so I'll shut up
now ;) -- Bryan Dollery
But nobody really talks about non-OO things except in an OO way. When was the last
time you heard somebody say what Tao was, except by saying it isn't any of such-andsuch objects? When was the last time you heard somebody describe an abstract
painting without just categorizing shapes, colors, styles, evoked emotions, and other
such objects?
I would agree that language constrains thought: Things that are hard to verbalize are
hard to think about in any depth for any long period of time.

But, we can change our language, and we do so continuously. So I would prefer to say
it as... "Language enables thought." A good choice of language can enable and ease
discussion of topics of importance to you. That's why we have technical terminology
in our business: Developing this terminology makes it easier for us to develop and
work with concepts that help us succeed. (No, I'm not talking about memes, or
Darwinian selection of ideas! ;-)
For example: I found the terms/concepts of "coupling" and "cohesion" very helpful in
developing my understanding of how to make good modular programs. I, and others,
seem to also have found value to this funny term/idea called "normalization" of data.
-- JeffGrigg
Here's an example that I'll be using tomorrow during my philosophy exam, I'm sure.
Without language, you could not have the sensible thought, "Fred is going to
Uruguay," without knowing Fred and without having been to (or actually in) Uruguay.
So, if I continued the story, "While he is there, he will be taking many photographs of
the street culture," you wouldn't be able to comprehend that string of symbols (or
sounds) as meaningful--as I'm sure you just did--if you didn't comprehend "Fred is
going to Uruguay," as it stood. So, some thoughts are definitely built out of language.
-- SunirShah
I think that you've got it backwards: the words "Fred" and "Uruguay" were invented to
describe things that were already understood. I assure you that my five month old
doesn't have language but is perfectly capable of conceptualizing: "Mommy is coming
here. While she is here I will get something good to eat." Which I think is
semantically equivalent to your example. So it is perfectly reasonable that we are able
to think without words. I certainly think that words help us to think. But I think it's
going too far to say that they enable us to think -- PhilGoodwin
Are you sure babies conceptualize anything at all? As I understand it, babies don't
really have any barriers between themselves and experience- they don't think "I'm
hungry;" they just are hungry.
If that is true, how can you understand Uruguay separate from experiencing it?
My cat, who has very limited oral and written linguistic abilities, seems to find ways
of explaining exactly what she wants, especially at 4:30 am when I was out all day
and most of the night before and she didn't get her hour of play in. Such
communications include loud purring and stepping on my face to awaken me,
jumping off the bed and looking back at me once I'm awake, and as I follow her
around my apartment, she continuously checks behind her to be sure I'm following,
and then lying down on the toy she would like to play with. She is very persistent, and
never fails to make her intent known. -- EvanCofsky
To argue that some thoughts are constrained by language and that others are aided by
language is to argue nothing. This is a fact and is self-evident. The statement at the top
of this page is that the SapirWhorfHypothesis states that language shapes thought.
This statement is untrue; the hypothesis states no such thing, it states that
our view of the world is so entrenched that our language is constrained by it.
That is, we can only talk about the things that we can think about.
If it states the opposite, that we can only think about things using language then this
would be trivial to dismiss because of all the concepts that we can not put into words.

Have you ever tried to explain to your partner how much you love them? Or tried to
describe an abstract painting by Picasso? -- Bryan Dollery
Your proposed restatement of their words is quite different from the quote actually
cited at the top, so I'd like to know where you get your version of their hypothesis.
The words about this hypothesis that I have seen so far are either obviously incorrect
or so hopelessly weak as to be vacuous. I'd be interested in seeing something
Looking at the quote at the top: "We cut nature up ... largely because we are parties to
an agreement ... that ... is codified in the patterns of our language." The
word largely here makes the sentence vacuous. It ends up only saying that words are
agreements, and we sometimes happen to chop the world into the same pieces. But
guess what? We sometimes also don't.
Continuing: "...we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and
classification of data which the agreement decrees." Both obvious and false. Obvious
because of course we can't tell someone else what we mean without using words that
have essentially the same meaning to them. And false because we actually do generate
new meanings for words as we talk, shifting the meanings through examples and body
language. I offer as an example ThomasKuhn's use of the word "paradigm".
In general, people construct the world in ways that have no analog in words, and do
that all the time. They are then faced with communicating that construction. Some go
to drawings, some to music, some to paintings, some to acting, some simply invent
new phrases. So these people do "talk", and do so without "subscribing to the
organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees."
-- AlistairCockburn
What if any significance is there in applying the SapirWhorfHypothesis (the simplest
description of which I have seen is that "language limits thought") to Programming
Languages and concepts? Does thinking in machine language, Assembler, COBOL,
Fortran, Smalltalk, C, C++, VB, Java etc limit your thoughts? Can you think different
thoughts working in one programming language versus another? Can you think these
programming thoughts in English or another natural language? I know that the
language I am working in does at least influence the design and programming
thoughts I think.
How significant are DesignPatterns in thinking of computer design issues? If there
were not names like Adapter or Proxy would these concepts be harder to think about?
If you think about such things are your thoughts visual or do you think about them in
words? Personally, I believe I mostly think about such things visually, but find the
names most useful for communication.
Are metaphor and simile, which are critical to the extension of natural language, also
important in extending design and programming thoughts? This is *like* that, or this
*is* one of those? This seems critical to me in designing software.
Are some computer languages better at allowing the programmer to express useful
thoughts, and if so, does this characteristic necessarily lead to better code, more
productivity or some other benefits? -- GlennWilson

I think so; one example is figuring out that continuations/closures exist, but not
knowing how to express them because you've never learned Smalltalk or Lisp.
-- ShaeErisson
In the light of this conversation, it has been interesting to compare this page and the
book SketchesOfThought (which argues for an ability to manipulate as-yetundemarcated ideas) with my ongoing research into what a project consists of. It is
clear that once a concept gets named, it is easier to parse my experience to call upon
that concept (but this has been known since I took perceptual psychology in 1973). I
have been watching (internally) how seemingly new ideas form themselves, pulling
some particular shape of experience out of a morass of criss-crossing experiences.
That idea-formation seems to support SketchesOfThought on the one hand, and also
the notion that once we name a concept or perception, we can use it with fluency to
parse and speak experience. (Same is true with programming languages, by the way).
-- AlistairCockburn
My description of reality is this: We each live in glass spheres separate from each
other, and because we want to understand and be able to compare we paint graph
paper like lines on the inside of our spheres... the problem is that each line we paint
covers up some part of the raw truth.
Language is a form of life (Lebensform, said by LudwigWittgenstein in his
PhilosophicalInvestigations?). There does not pre-exist any kind of language before
our life. But as languages shape itself from our life, it can definitely affect our life
combined with almost infinite factors of our life. and it affects back again to language;
ad infinitum as like two mirrors facing each other. So we can say there's some kind of
correlation between the two, but cannot say direct causal relationship.
One interesting point that shows the correlationship is between what we call the word
order and our dispositions concerning mental focus. English is HeadInitial? but some
Asian languages (Korean, Japanese,...) are HeadFinal?. See the difference in the
definition of "language" in each dictionary :
Um... In both English and Japanese, at least, modifiers precede nouns
(red book, akai hon), and the same is probably true for Korean. Japanese and
Korean do differ from English in that their basic word order is Subject-ObjectVerb, whereas English is Subject-Verb-Object. But this means nothing, since
the basic word order of many European languages is Subject-Object-Verb (the
most common order among the world's languages) and many Asian languages
(including all the varieties of Chinese that I know of) are Subject-Verb-Object
(the second most common order among the world's languages). -- SteveConley
English dictionary
Language: the system of sounds and words used by humans to express their thoughts
and feelings (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary 5E, Oxford, 1996)
Korean dictionary
Language: human thoughts or feelings/to express/ used/sounds or words/ system (Han
Korean Dictionary, Sungahndang, 1998)

Do you see the almost reversed word order between the two? In Korean, we start from
the boundary informations whereas in English they start from the central
But dictionary entries are not complete sentences and fail to capture the
distinction you are trying to describe because they lack head verbs. And the
location of "information" in a sentence doesn't necessarily correspond to the
basic word order of the language. For example, fronting objects and adjuncts
for emphasis and/or topicalization: "That book, I have read." or "Quietly, we
tiptoed down the hall."
There was an interesting report from a psychologist, RichardNisbett?, shown in the
New York Times. He conducted several experiments to compare the thinking habits
between Westeners - American students - and Easterners - Koreans and Japanese. In
one experiment, the subjects were shown a picture with a largest fish in the center and
some small fish around it in a lake. Most American students first started to tell about
the largest focal object, the big fish, when asked about the picture afterwards. On the
other hand, most japanese students first explained at the start more about the
background environment and relations between objects rather than the objects per se.
Surprisingly, when the Japanese students were shown a picture with the same largest
fish but with different background, seldom could they recognize the fish as same,
while most American students could say it was the same.
Nisbett concludingly said, Easterners tend to focus on the context and relations and
think holistic but Westerners focus on the objects and try to analyze. -- JuneKim
Whatever Nesbitt's conclusions, I doubt it has anything to do with language.
The dominant culture in East Asia has always been the Chinese, yet the various
Chinese languages do not follow the Japanese/Korean pattern at all. On the
other hand, many European languages are Subject-Object-Verb like Japanese
and Korean, and some of them (Finnish and Hungarian, for example) are even
agglutinative (I'm speaking geographically, not in terms of language families).
Futhermore, English shares a great deal of similarity with Chinese, more so
than any other European language I know of (Subject-Verb-Object, almost no
inflectional morphology, fairly strict word order), so the language has nothing
to do with it. Maybe the Japanese students in Nisbett's experiment just needed
glasses. -- SteveConley
d_its_effect_on_cognition+.shtml (BrokenLink: 2002/07/18)
"In English, time rushes forward. In Mandarin Chinese, it moves down. The
past lies above, and the future lies below. So is the mind of a Mandarin speaker
different from the mind of an English speaker? The question is one of science's
loaded topics, a politically charged theory with a racist past. But researchers
now say they are uncovering proof that it may be true."
uh uh...
Another researcher has found evidence that languages which have many terms
for color, such as English, give their speakers an advantage in remembering
Critics say the findings are all small effects, well short of profound. "What
happens to these neo-Whorfians is they keep backing off," said Lila Gleitman,

a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Their position then becomes

sufficiently weak that it holds no interest."
This last seems completely wrong to me. I can testify from personal experience that
language is overwhelmingly important for conscious recall. Not having the language
to describe songs is why it is impossible for me to consciously recall anything about
them. I can recall words without any problems, but I cannot recall sounds or
colours. Really?? I can recall sounds, tunes, colors, images, temperature, orientation,
emotion, and a host of other things that don't express well as words. My brother finds
it hard to understand that people don't recall spacial/temporal frameworks -something I have to work at -- but I have no problem with components. -- gh
Above, many people talk about how one can think without words. This is certainly an
exceptional case. It is an extremely rare occasion when my thoughts consist of
anything other than words and spatial relations. In fact, words and spatial relations
are so important (and everything else so unimportant) that many people believe them
to be the essence of consciousness. (SeeJulianJaynes) -- RichardKulisz
I'm not versed in the literature, but it seems to me as follows. In order to consciously
recall an image, sound, smell or concept, you need something else to remind you of it.
Once you have a smell or color you can easily remember various related things, but
really the only available ways to keep several things in place at once are sentences and
diagrams. Sound can be done but only sequentially, and in practice I can remember
things with songs but can only start at certain key points. So Jaynes' point should just
be an obvious comment on the nature of the senses we have available to us so far,
However, if you can come up with temporary place-holding words quickly and easily,
wouldn't that be enough to invalidate Sapir-Whorf? When you run into a smell, think
of it as snippid, and after a few tries it should be as easy to recall as lemon.
That only works if you encounter the distinct smell often enough, in closely related
situations. And it must be easily distinguished as a unique smell instead of as a
combination of them. If you only encounter combinations of smells, then the lack of a
language with which to discriminate and categorize them all means you can't divide
and conquer the problem.
Sure, it would take some work to be able to discuss smells properly, but understanding
smells well enough to recognize combinations or effects would take some
work anyways. Most people don't work with smells very much, just passively receive
them, which is why we think little of them and have few words describing them. But
is it definitely the second which is preventing the first? As far as I can tell, the main
effect of the limited vocabulary is that nobody can explain smells to me, and I haven't
bothered to figure them out for myself.
This is easier to see with something like music. Over the centuries people have built
up a large vocabulary of musical terms, which make it easier to teach others how to
play or even to compose music. But a few people have also figured out how to
become musicians on their own, maybe making up their own terms, or maybe just
leaving certain concepts unverbalized. Of course, if they ever try talking to someone
else they will have to agree on words.
What I get out of all this is that being given pre-packaged concepts in the form of
words makes it easier to think about things. So, of course, does being given them in
the form of aphorisms, parables, explanations, or diagrams. That idea seems to me to

fall right back into the category of versions too weak to hold interest - more of
a SapirWhorfTruism.
It's pretty clear that animals manage to divide the world of perception up into physical
objects (that is, they form a mental map of the external world, inferred from sense
impressions); and to organize these objects into categories (food objects, fear object,
sex object) without recourse to language. --- For RichardKulisz, re: "... language is
overwhelmingly important for conscious recall. . . .It is an extremely rare occasion
when my thoughts consist of anything other than words and spatial relations. In fact,
words and spatial relations are so important (and everything else so unimportant)
that many people believe them to be the essence of consciousness. (See JulianJaynes)
Richard, your point exactly undoes your point. You point to JulianJaynes and refer to
consciousness. But JulianJaynes himself points out that most of our actual "thinking"
is not done in the consciousness. That performance of logic and puzzle solving,
happen in the sub-vocal thoughts, not in the vocal, conscious thoughts. He makes it
very clear that the speaking-while-thinking portion is the very small subset of our
thinking. Here you are getting caught in the catch-22 of consciousness, to wit,
consciousness is a little voice speaking into our hearing center, therefore any thought
we are conscious of consists of words. But there is much more happening in our brain
than a little voice speaking into the hearing center. There are 10^<big number> of
other neurons firing concurrently. --AlistairCockburn
New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99996303) quotes a
study published in Science Express that appears to lend support to
the SapirWhorfHypothesis (although it doesn't mention the hypothesis by name, only
with a reference to LinguisticDeterminism). Members of the Brazilian Pirah? tribe,
whose language does not represent distinct numerals above two, were given a number
of tasks that tested numeric cognition (for example, matching the sizes of sets of
blocks, or tapping the floor the same number of times as the proctor). Consistently
members of the tribe did well up to numbers around three or four, but tended to have
trouble at higher numbers. Of course, to invoke the SapirWhorfHypothesis in analysis
begs the question of causality: do they not have those concepts because their language
has not evolved to include them, or has their language not evolved to include larger
numbers because culturally, socially, and cognitively they do not use them?
See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirah%C3%A3_people
It's always interesting to see new material on the subject, but I'm pretty sad about this
particular study. It's basically worthless. Everyone is poor at the kinds of tasks they
tested (this has been studied to death), and we improve our performance by counting
and remembering counts. If you can't count and then duplicate counts, you do poorly
-- it doesn't matter why or how the counting was excluded. The authors of this study
should never even have published.
Isn't that exactly the point? The tribe does poorly because they didn't count. They
didn't count because they have no words for numbers > 2. Ergo, their language shapes
their thought (that is, by limiting their ability to recognize larger numbers). Note that
the article states that "they are otherwise similar to other adult humans"; that is, it does
not extrapolate numeracy to deficiency in intelligence or other areas.

Quick, how many ones here: 11111111111111111? Oh, you didn't do too well, I
guess you can't count very well, English must be deficient in number words.
This is an easy to grasp exaggeration of the problems that come up with idiotic
studies like the one above. If they had very carefully avoided this kind of
problem, they would have found nothing to publish.
The key point of the study of this tribe really is that culture and language go
together none strictly dominates the other, but both support each other. This is
so for every language but the more complex culture and language are the
weaker the dependency is. The interesting point of this tribe really is that the
culture is not only unusual but also extremely simple and effectively excludes
complex meaning systems (history, religion) and the language matches this
with alike simple structures and no terms for anything abstract. They don't need
it. On the other hand the language has features very useful, e.g. it can be
whistled (it carries enough information in tone hights changes to be
'understandable that way).
If the relationship between language and thought doesn't extend beyond practice
makes perfect, I think most people would agree the SWH is false. As such, this study
doesn't say anything about it.
There is a story about a biblical king who wanted to identify the 'original' language of
man. He had three babies taken from their mothers (one hebrew, one greek and one
latin) and given to wet-nurses who were under strict instructions not to speak a word
within hearing of the babies. Uncontaminated by other speakers, everyone waited
eagerly to hear what language the babies would speak. All three babies withered and
On the other paw, there are documented cases of communities of deaf people
inventing new sign
languages: http://www.boker.org.il/english/newsignlanguage.htm orhttp://www.nerdsh
The evidence is strong that people left together will develop new languages and
jargons. That says more for our need and ability to communicate than it about the
relationship betwen language and thinking, which is almost certainly circular.
There are sentances that are hard to translate into certain languages. For example, "by
tomorrow, I will have been to Sydney" really maps very badly into Chinese. I know a
native Finnish teacher who says that 'some thoughts are easier to think in English; I
could not teach what I do in Finnish.'
What matters is - does a language have a word for the concept in question? If not, it
takes more MilliEinsteins to express a concept. How well does the word map to the
concept? Are there other words that denote related concepts, and sub-types of the
concept? If not, it will be harder to be precise. Are there words that describe the wider
concept the specific concept is a type of. If not, it will be harder to generalise. The
difference between a Terrorist and a Freedom Fighter is significant, especially if the
two are one and the same person.
If we don't have a word that means exactly what we want, we have to compose a
sentance to explain ourselves. Think of words as methods. Without an exact match,

we have to have build up what we want from multiple lower level terms. That
distracts us from what we actually want to say. We can introduce new words, but that
creates a learning curve for the listener.
We can think without words, but only up to a point. Words encapsulate concepts and
enable higher level concepts. We need words to put order to our thoughts.
Consider: The Romans were great at counting, but useless at higher level
The claim that "language shapes thought" seems so obviously true to me and so
obviously false to many other people that I have to suspect a definitional mismatch.
You can stop right there, because that's just it. It means different things to
different people. In particular, it means almost completely different things to
linguists than it does to non-linguists, and even with linguists it nonetheless has
a variety of interpretations.
So it's important to be as specific as possible, yet most statements of the SWH
are not specific at all (unfortunately, including the several original statements).
Let me suggest an analogy: "roads shape driving". Obviously, roads don't shape
driving absolutely. To paraphrase some arguments from above; cars drive in places
that roads are not and some cars are very good at it. Many places can not be reached
by roads. Not all roads can be driven on. We don't always use the same road to reach
the same place. For a road to exist, it has to be built by off-road vehicles. And so on.
Most linguists believe that language does not follow roads, that they're more
like dune buggys in the desert -- when it comes to semantics, at least. At an
extreme is Jacques Guy, who believes that even syntax (let alone semantics)
should not be considered to follow a set of pre-established rules, but that
rather, natural language syntax is more like the most frequently trodden paths
in a meadow, with nothing to stop one from walking on the grass outside the
paths. -- DougMerritt
Driving can transcend roads. Yet the basic statement holds: where we build our roads
determines where we will drive; most cars do most of their driving on roads, even cars
designed for travelling off-road. Vehicles that build roads tend to be carried on road
going vehicles, as are many off-road vehicles such as are trail-bikes. We can drive
faster and futher with roads than without. Good roads make for faster, smoother,
easier travel and encourage more travel by road, to such an extent that building new
roads actually tends to increase congestion. And so on.
There is another aspect to the analogy: where we build roads is shaped by where we
want to drive. This, I think, is our definitional mismatch: given that language is an
attempt to express thought, how can anyone claim that it is thought that is shaped by
language? The metaphoric answer is that it's a two way street.
While adequate roads exist, we use them. Otherwise, we strike cross-country, and if a
route is taken often enough, it becomes a track, then a path, then a road. More
importantly, it rarely occurs to most people to visit locations unreachable by road, or

to build in such locations without also constructing an access road. Even crosscountry walkers tend to drive to the start of the trail. We are not absolutely constrained
to use roads, but in general, we do, and our range becomes much more limited once
we leave the road.
Similarlly, we are not completely constrained by the language we have, but we can
drill only so far into new concepts before we become overwhelmed. Our ability to
grok nameless things is limited. We embed our understanding of the world in the
words we use. Words create order from chaos and using a particular word calls up a
particular ordering of reality.
We accept that the physical tools we use shape the way we work (HammerNail?).
Why then do we have trouble accepting that the mental tools we use shape the way we

Because most people would then assume (and even academics absolutely did
assume, historically) that this means some languages are better mental tools
than others, yet this is largely discredited. It's still assumed by many nonlinguists; a number of Chinese-born engineers have told me over the years that
they think English really is superior for engineering, while Chinese is superior
for e.g. poetry. This is certainly fun anecdotal material, but it doesn't prove
For engineering (and science and math etc) it is important to have a
specialized jargons with a rich set of technical words. It certainly is obvious
that jargon is a helpful mental and communicational tool -- but such jargons
evolve naturally in languages where they are needed, including via borrowing
(as is infamous in English, French, and Japanese in particular). The existence
of a jargon is almost never what people imagine the SWH to be about, however,
and it's a fairly trivial side issue.
Outside of technical concepts that the average speaker of a language doesn't
know in the first place, it's been fairly well demonstrated that one can
communicate ideas just as well in any of the world's languages, albeit more
tersely in some than others (it's interesting that the word for "tea" was
borrowed fairly directly from Chinese in most languages, and that a large
number of languages have borrowed "ok" from English by now).
Bottom line: is it really so obvious that the SWH is true, if all languages are
equally good "mental tools"? -- DougMerritt
That language influences individual thinking and culture in general is true beyond any
doubt because it has been empirically validated. All totalitarian regimes used language
to control the population, both at individual and societal scale. In US you only need to
watch the cable news, or listen to talk radio (both left and right), to realize the level of
language engineering that is used to shape the thinking of the target audience.

If all languages of the civilized world are equally good mental tools this proves that in
absence of major constraints societies evolve equally good languages. In addition we
have the modern experience where cultures are in effect communicating vessels, so
any other outcome would be surprising. --CostinCozianu
Indeed true, which brings up two issues: first, the varying nature of the individuals;
some are more swayed by propaganda, some are less so (in general one would expect
a given population to follow a Bell curve); secondly, the inevitable rise of samizdat
when those "totalitarian regimes used language to control the population"; the nature
and existence of samizdat indicates a pushback (negative feedback) against the
attempted controls, at least in a statistical sense, and mutatis mutandis et ceterus
paribus, again a Bell curve, but note that the width and location of peak of Bell curve
can make all the difference to a society, which I believe is ultimately what described
the outcomes of perestroika etc. (I.e. stability vs instability of a system can change
merely with a change in the peak and/or width of such a distribution.)
This would seem to be exploring a subset of the SWH, that of control by a totalitarian
state, as warned in the novel 1984 amongst others. History seems to show that 100%
control of 100% of the thinking of 100% of the population is quite out of the question;
there are too many other forces at work, even if the state is largely successful -- and
even then I would question whether it waslanguage in particular that shaped the
population's thoughts, vs simple social policy, which then required citizens to follow
the wording of the official language.
By the time Orwell wrote 1984 it was no longer a futuristic warning, it was
already a reality in Soviet Union. Language is the mechanism of control, and
the most effective one at that. There's no question that language shaped the
thoughts and not the other way around. When children are taught in school to
refer to a group as the "exploiting class" versus the "working class" what do
you expect them to think about it ? 100% control is not even necessary as
evolutionary pressures at work are enough if the totalitarian conditions survives
in isolation for an extended period. Language both acumulates social
experience and knowledge, and facilitates the building of social experience and
knowledge in an evolutionary manner. In a free society all kinds of different
currents form their own idioms and branches within the language, and survival
of the fitest competition ensues. If on the other hand the natural evolution is cut
through official policy, the results can be absolutely predictable.
Of course I agree -- one would have to have been living in a cave to be
unaware of the truth of that -- it's just that I do not regard this as the same
thing as the SapirWhorfHypothesis. Consider that when you say "language
shaped the thoughts", yes, true, but if you said "indoctrination shaped the
thoughts" or "constant repetition of the same ideas shaped the thoughts", I'd
agree with each of those paraphrases, too, and I don't see that the wording
using the word "language" is paramount amongst such paraphrases. That's the
problem with the SWH hypothesis; it is rarely if ever phrased in a non-trivial
way -- usually it is stated in a way that is trivially true, or sometimes trivially

Those aren't as interesting as the underlying intent of Sapir and Whorf (the
intent is partially recoverable from their writings). An example: a large part of
the original intent of the artificial human language LoglanLanguage was to
see if humans would think more logically if they used a language with a logical
language (Loglan is modelled after formal logic, using predicates rather than
e.g. verbs), as an explicit test of (one form of) the SWH. That form of the SWH
is not trivially true or false; it may be right, it may be wrong, but the answer
isn't trivial. That captures some of the flavor of what Sapir and Whorf meant by
their hypothesis. It was originally concerning claims (now considered
disproven) that Hopi language caused a radically different world view.
o Oh well. We do not seem to have enough expertise here to justice to the
discussion. In addition, trying to do it justice here may turn out to be a
copious waste of time. Maybe we should leave it
for http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir-Whorf_Hypothesis or other more
specialized fora. We should perhaps refactor out anything that is already
said better on wikipedia. But I think that SapirWhorf? has some special
meaning for us that should be left here.
o From my point of view language influences thinking and is influenced
by thinking, both at individual and social level. This should be trivial to
understand for programmers from comparing Basic/GoTo (unstructured),
Pascal (structured), C++ (OO), Scheme/Haskell (higher order), etc. It is
well known that in absence of external constraints, languages evolve
serving the needs and incorporating the knowledge of the people using
them. This is nothing of a big deal. If you have bad tools for some
activity you do it poorly, but you also tend to construct better tools. I
don't think we need linguistic researchers or philosophers to tell us that,
they should come with something more insightful of they can.
o I find it very ridiculous that a bunch of researchers thought they were
qualified to design a better natural language. So they designed a "better"
language with the idea to test the prediction that speakers of that
language will think more logically. But if the prediction fails, the
reasonable conclusion is that they are lousy language designers (you
can't compete against millennia of language evolution that easily), rather
than invalidate SapirWhorfHypothesis. -- CostinCozianu
I'm minded of a woman from Moscow (under the USSR in the 1980s, who later came
to the U.S.) who told me that she met her personal State monitor (assigned to listen to
her phones, etc) in a food line, and they had a nice chat wherein the monitor revealed
knowledge of every aspect of her subject's life... the monitor viewed it as just a job to
do, not a matter of ideology, regardless of how her superiors used the results of her
monitoring. Weird. -- DougMerritt
Experiential -> Symbolic (Language labels a correlatable set of stimuli)

Symbolic -> Meta-Symbolic (Language as a concept unto itself talking about

Symbolic -> Hypothetical Experiential (Language as a mechanism to think
about correlatable sets of stimuli)
Experiential -> Hypothetical Experiential (Stimuli related to other stimuli)
I don't understand why it's one or the other when this sort of feedback loop seems
more likely. When thinking in 'language' modes rather than 'non-language' modes
there is a richer framework of abstractions to draw on that is for sure but it doesn't
stop 'non-language' associations from firing.
Everything shapes thought. The authors are likely overemphasizing language
because that is their specialty. I myself am mostly a visual thinker. Visual impressions
shape most of my thoughts. Often when discussing something, I first turn language
into visuals, process the visuals, produce a visual response, and turn the visual back
into language. Sometimes that works well, sometimes not, depending on the subject
matter. (I came very close to being in a visual field instead of "IT".) Other people
seem to think more "linguistically", which I cannot define because I can't do it for the
most part. And also cultural metaphors shape thought. I caught myself using "away
mission" to describe my coworker's whereabouts. StarTrek idioms leaked into my
communication process. (Trek didn't invent it, but is the heaviest user based on web
I stand a living counterexample. Due to certain conditions, I have found it necessary
to redo the pathing in my own brain. Understand the thought-processes here are
somehow lower-level than language communication but carry something that until I
am given the language to unlock I cannot express. The necessity of operation depends
not on the verbal processing circuits, nor the geometric processing circuits, so the
thoughts cannot be spoken nor visualized but they yet exist. Understand if you will the
motor commands in my brain are not normal because I have rewired them.