How central are culture and colour to the language and thought debate? OLIVIA WINDMILL considers the options

Deutscher (2011) argues that “[a] nations’s language […] reflects its culture psyche and modes of thought”. So I am asking the question whether the language we use every day can reflect the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. As Deutscher (2011) pointed out, think about the word ‘culture’ itself. How might someone with an English background’s definition differ to that of someone with a German background? From the Chambers English Dictionary, Deutscher presents the definition, “the state of being cultivated, refinement, the result of cultivation, a type of civilization” (2011: 8) and from the Storig German dictionary, “[t]he totality of intellectual and artistic achievements of a society” (2011: 8). Just from these definitions we can see the differences in cultures. The stereotype is of Germans being precise, in contrast to the English awkwardly avoiding the task of giving a specific definition. Like Deutscher says, does this mean that our language is a form of representing ourselves to the rest of world, and that our inner thoughts and perceptions are reflected through the words of communication?

This view is known as linguistic determinism, an approach towards the language and thought debate which claims that our language controls the way we think. While this approach has its merits and perhaps some valid points, there are other viewpoints to consider when debating the relationship between language and thought.

Functionalism is the polar opposite to linguistic determinism. It proposes the idea that thought is the entity which controls our language. Consider universal grammar. This concept hypothesizes that no matter what language you speak, every human being has the same mental capacity for language and the ability to learn fundamental grammars. Bearing this in mind, could it imply that every person will see the world in the same way? Surely if every person has the same basis of language in their brain, the thought behind language will be influencing the way the world is seen, not the actual language itself. Or perhaps not. There is another side to this argument which might make you think differently…

Linguistic Relativity is a weaker version of linguistic determinism. Personally I see it taking the best bits of linguistic determinism, formulating them into a much more credible, and persuasive argument.

Think about the way you see colours compared to someone else. The colour ‘blue’ has many different shades. You could just state the difference between dark blue and light blue, or you could apply different labels for shades in the palate, for example, ‘navy’, ‘cerulean’ or ‘turquoise’. No matter which way you choose to describe a colour, does that mean that you see it in a different way as someone who uses a different lexical label? In 2007, Winawer, Whittoft et al. investigated Russian and English speakers’ perception of the colour ‘blue’. The difference between English and Russian is that speakers of Russian have two separate words for dark blue, ‘siniy’ and light blue, ‘goluboy’, whereas in English, the noun is modified by the adjective. Their investigation showed that Russian speakers were quicker in a colour matching task when categorising different stimuli. However when participating in a linguistic task at the same time, they were no quicker than the English speakers. Having different words for the different shades of blue made the task easier for the Russian participants. It also seems to make it easier to process information. Could it therefore be claimed that language really does impact upon thought?

I have introduced the three main viewpoints on this difficult topic and have hopefully shown you how we can think about these with real life examples. However there are more studies and theories behind each of the three main arguments. I would recommend having a read of literature on the Sapir Whorf hypothesis. Although it is dated, it does have some very valid points for the linguistic relativity argument. Personally, I think it is easy to see how certain aspects of each of the arguments have their own validity and could be seen to be the answer to the language and thought debate, and as it is such a tricky topic, particularly because it is hard to prove most aspects of any argument, we will never know what our languages say to the rest of the world about the inner workings of our minds.

OLIVIA WINDMILL, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK



Deutscher, G (2011) Through the Language Glass: Why the world looks different in other languages London: Arrow Books.

Winawer, Whittoft et al (2007) Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. PNAS 104 (19). pp. 7780-85. 



One thought on “How central are culture and colour to the language and thought debate? OLIVIA WINDMILL considers the options

  1. Anthony Rea says:

    I found the example you cited from Deutscher (2010) particularly convincing as the linguistic-relativity hypothesis was empirically tested through the colour matching task. Some of past cross-linguistic comparisons in support of this hypothesis lacked the scientific rigor of the example you cited, being based upon anecdotal evidence becoming cemented as a myth. For instance; the claim Inuits’ have a finer graded conceptualisation of snow due to the supposed wide array of words to describe it, has since been dispelled by Pullum (1991). Whorf himself made inaccurate claims that the Hopi tribe could not conceptualise time, because they had no linguistic forms for it. However this was dispelled by Malotoki (1983) who found the Hopi simply grammaticized tense differently.

    My only critique of your article relates to your definition of Universal Grammar (UG) and subsequent line of argument. Stating ‘every human being has the same mental capacity for language and the ability to learn fundamental grammars’, can be contradicted by issues of congenital specific language impairment. Chomsky avoided the assumption that all humans share the same mental capacities, defining UG as ‘the system of principles, conditions and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages […] (Chomsky, 1975:29). Furthermore advocates of UG such as Steven Pinker have suggested the rule forming capacity which underpins UG can be impaired from birth. Specifically to the inability to apply inflectional rules which result in morphological errors (1989). With this in mind, I don’t feel the UG hypothesis, as you defined it, could be interpreted to ‘imply every person will see the world the same way’. Considering if all normally developed and unimpaired individuals do would seem the more appropriate question to ask.

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