Is it all smoke and mirrors? VICTORIA HULSE explores whether the news can ever be a window on the world

Objectivity, transparency and neutrality or subjectivity, opacity and bias? Which set of words would you associate with the news? If it was the latter you are not alone. How could the news ever be the former when 71% of the national newspaper market is owned by just three companies (Media Reform Coalition, 2015) making the choice of events to report on and the political/social stance to take, very limited. So how neutral can the news really be? Is there ever such a thing as reporting the facts?

It is argued that “[t]he news does not simply reflect the world as if it were a mirror as journalists often claim […] the news does not simply construct a picture of the real either” (Matheson, 2005, p.15). Richardson (2007, p. 10) suggests that news reports are constructed based on their expected audience and because of this it “recreates these social and sometimes institutional expectations – expectations that we all have when we pick up a newspaper”. It is apparent that these expectations directly affect the “newsworthiness” of events and therefore the reporting of them. Harcup and O’Neill (2001) argued that “the news needs to be interesting or appealing to the target audience” (as cited in Richardson, 2007, p.91) and therefore, the content will be manipulated. Therefore, it seems impossible to be completely impartial when reporting events and through the drive to sell newspapers, it appears that the truth of the event may become distorted to fit the ideologies or events that sell.

An example of this distortion can be seen through the ideology of news reports. Ideology can be defined as “a systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics, economics or society and forming the basis of action or policy” (OED online, 20/04/2017). Therefore, ideologies are often present in news reports to reinforce an idea or belief that the newspaper wants people to adopt. For example, the EU referendum provided a binary choice, which meant newspapers that were primarily Eurosceptic produced anti-European reports which disseminated the ideology that Britain is better out of the European Union, whereas newspapers that favoured remaining in the European Union produced pro-European reports. So which is it? Were we factually better off in leaving the European Union or remaining?

Well it seems that your opinion will be formed depending on the newspaper you read due to the variance in reporting. This is apparent on the two front covers of different newspapers the day after the result was announced. The Daily Mirror took a negative stance in its reporting with the headline ‘so what the hell happens now?’ and a picture of David Cameron and his wife looking uncertain. The Daily Express however, took a more positive stance with a headline such as ‘historic day for Britain’ and displaying a picture of the Chelsea Pensioners potentially showing pride. Therefore, if two people read either of the newspapers they may develop completely different ideologies about the same event and therefore it is arguable that the news does not just simply report an event, it offers the reader a viewpoint to read with.

To conclude, it is difficult for the news to ever be a completely unbiased and neutral source of information and there will always be the possibility that the reports will have an agenda or ideology they want to implement. Even if news outlets aim to be neutral, there is still an overreaching element of subjectivity in their reporting even if this is unintentional. It is also important to consider perspectives. What one person may view as positive, another may view as negative and therefore is it possible that we as the audience influence how we view the world. On the other hand, there are organisations such as the BBC that attempt to remain unbiased and therefore it is possible certain news outlets can be or at least attempt to be a true representation of events. However, news values contribute to the distortion of reality dependent on their deemed ‘newsworthiness’, therefore, what is reported and the stance taken is primarily motivated by the audience. Therefore, can the news ever really be a window on the world?

VICTORIA HULSE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Matheson, D. (2005). Media discourses. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Media reform coalition. (2015). Corbyn’s first week: Negative Agenda Setting in the Press. 

Richardson, J. E. (2007). Analysing newspapers. An approach from critical discourse analysis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Daily Mirror Cover (2016) What the hell happens now?


Does the news reflect or construct the world? LAURA BOWATER investigates

Matheson (2005: 15) claims that “[t]he news does not simply reflect the world as if it were a mirror, as journalists often claim […] [A]lso […] the news does not simply construct a picture of the real either, as critics […] have suggested”. This implies that the news which is presented can never be neutral, therefore there will always be some bias one way or another.

The stance taken by news producers is dependent on their audience and is therefore appealing to the side in which the audience’s bias is presented. Therefore the facts can be distorted to fit the audience. This is done through news values to make the news interesting for their intended audience. This is supported by Harcup and O’Neill (2001) who state that “[n]ews values are the criteria employed by journalists to measure and therefore to judge the ’newsworthiness’ of events. […] the news needs to be interesting or appealing to the target audience. News values are meant to be the distillation of what an identified audience is interested in reading” (as cited in Richardson, 2007, p.91).

When looking at the news on the days leading up to the EU referendum it is clear to see the contrasting stances which some papers have taken. On the day of the result the Daily Mirror led with the headline: “So what the hell happens now?”. The use of the noun ‘hell’ indicates negative ideas towards leaving the EU, therefore indicating a bias to be on the stay campaign for Britain. This clearly indicated that leaving the EU is going to have a negative effect on Britain are therefore appealing to the public that wanted to stay within the European Union.

In contrast on the same day the Daily Express had the headline ‘Historic day for Britain’. On the surface the adjective ‘historic’ could be seen to represent a positive view towards the leave campaign of the EU Referendum and therefore achieving the result it set out to achieve. This would appeal to the leave proportion of the population therefore showing again the biased nature of the news. On the surface, ‘historic’ could be inferred to be a neutral adjective, however juxtaposed with the image of the Chelsea pensioners presented underneath the headline it would be safe to assume that it is being used in a patriotic and positive manner.

The BBC is often perceived as the place where the news is neutral. However, post-structuralists would maintain that it is impossible to write from an unbiased stance, arguing that the aim to be unbiased is in itself ‘a position’ (Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C. and McEnery, T. (2013: 8).

LAURA BOWATER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester


Conboy, M. (2007). The language of the news. Abingdon: Routledge.

Daily Mirror Cover (2016) What the hell happens now? 

Matheson, D. (2005). Media discourses. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Richardson, J. E. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


Can the news ever provide a neutral window on the world or does discourse act as a blind? ALICE GRIX has a peek through the curtains

Eckstrom (2002) defines ‘news’ as “reliable, neutral and current factual information that is important and valuable for citizens in democracy”. On the 24th February 2017, The Sun newspaper’s front page read “DYER SEXTED ME PIC OF HIS ENDER”, referencing Danny Dyer’s questionable choices, drawing attention to the question of whether or not ‘news’ is in fact important and valuable. Do you remember ‘#Hameron’ going viral? Yes, the pig and the ex-Prime Minister. The writer of that story, only hours after it hit our screens and papers, revealed she had no evidence to support the shocking story, definitely questioning news’ “reliable” and “factual” description.

A man featuring on many of our front pages and screens recently, is President Trump. A photo of him and the Mexican president took pride of place on the Wall Street Journal front page on 1st September 2016. Some copies featured the headline “Trump Softens His Tone” and others, “Trump Talks Tough on Wall”, two very different headlines on the same day, with the same photo (, 2016). Misleading? Very. This occurred during his election campaign and had the ability to influence votes. It’s hard to say that this newspaper edition is a window on the world when one window is looking out onto sunny landscape, and the other is looking out onto a storm.

Reah (2002) says language is “perhaps most powerful when its role in presenting the world to an audience is not explicit” and further suggests it is “easy to resist a particular viewpoint or ideology when you know it is being presented to you” (p. 54). Scary, right? Baker et al (2008) found that in the British press between 1996-2005, newspapers commonly referred to refugees and asylum seekers using water metaphors such as a ‘flood’ or and ‘pouring’, both of which construct an idea of an undesirable, natural disaster. This is a dangerous ideology to present to the public, especially when we aren’t aware of its influence, and lacks the objectivity we expect from news discourse.

‘Post-truth’ is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2017). The term suggests that society now prefers emotion over fact, and that is what gains popularity and reaches us. Its selection as word of the year last year is understandable given the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, and the turmoil that followed the campaigns. How could we forget the ‘LEAVE’ campaign’s big bus that suggested we send £350m each week to the NHS? Just hours after our decision to leave the EU was announced, Nigel Farage relinquished such ideas. This point, alongside the #Hameron fiasco and the Wall Street Journal’s alternating headlines, support the argument that the news we receive is not an effective window on the world.

A development that has arguably presented a window to the world is the news app. Amongst other news outlets, BBC news send notifications to our phones, and even Twitter, a social media platform, has followed suit. Facebook now allow us to filter our profile pictures with supportive images for world events, which is how I personally have discovered news. Neetzan Zimmerman said in 2014 (cited by Viner, K. 2016), that “[t]he only thing that really matters is whether people click on it… [f]acts are over… if a person is not sharing a news story, it is, at its core, not news”. Zimmerman proves that social media has become a news outlet in its own right. However, access to these sites, and in many cases, what can be said on them, is not restricted, which is why it can be questioned whether or not it is a true window on the world. In one respect, the speed at which news reaches may substantiate that view, however the content of that which we receive and the lack of restriction around it may provide a very different perspective.

Social media sites are increasingly aware of this fact, which has led Facebook in recent weeks to launch a guide on how to spot fake news. This won’t stop what is out there, but it may prevent untruths spreading so quickly as social media allows. Therefore, it may be believed that developments in technology are acting as a window on the world, however the view we see has often been selected by others as being news-worthy. Additionally, the supposed ‘factual’ newspapers present us with hidden ideologies and rumours they cannot prove are true. This doesn’t mean that everything we read or click on is false, but how sure are you that what you read is fact?

ALICE GRIX, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., Khosravinik, M., Krzyżanowski, M., McEnery, T., & Wodak, R. (2008). A useful methodological synergy? Combining critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to examine discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press. Discourse & Society19(3), 273-306.

Eckstrom, M. (2002). Epistomologies of TV journalism: a theoretical framework. Journalism, 3(3), 259-282.

Evon, D. (2016, September 2). Same Paper, Different Story. Snopes. 

Oxford Dictionaries. (2017) Oxford University Press. 

Reah, D. (2002). The language of newspapers. Abingdon: Routledge

Viner, K. (2016, July 12). How Technology Disrupted the Truth. The Guardian.

Is the self wrapped up in language or does the concept of the selfie exist outside of the word? GEORGE MORRIS engages in some self-reflection

Have you ever thought about how you think? Ever wondered if I know what you know? I know that you know, that I know that you know.

“What is a thought without a voice to voice it?” Reynolds (2010) asks. But another question is: ‘would we have any given thought if not for our language in which we construct them?’ Academics are often torn by the two potential answers to this question – either our thoughts are determined by the constraints of our language, or the thoughts can still exist outside the barriers of verbal communication. However, the pedantic linguists among us, such as Lund (2003) describe a ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ version of something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – where all the brain straining commotion stems from. For example Whorf writes, “[w]e dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it” (1956). The ‘strong’ form of this theory, as described by Lund (2003) states, “language determines thought”, whereas the ‘weak’ form suggests “language influences thought”.  The language and thought can of worms cracked and spilled, it allows us to decide how we approach the vastly complex understanding of whether we believe language is a proverbial ‘straight-jacket’.

Bloom and Keil write: “nobody doubts that language can inform, convince, persuade, soothe, dismay, encourage and so on […]” (2001, p.351) to which Evans agrees arguing that “it is a truism, then, that language influences thought: we do so almost every time we use language.” (2014, p.193). In everyday life, the influence of language is evident – education, politics, work place, or even our romantic and personal lives. The way we function and interact with the world around us, and especially other people, is widely influenced by our language system. This view of language and thought is described as ‘determinism’ (Evans and Green, 2006). Lamarque writes that “[w]ithout language there would be no possibility of abstract thought or even perhaps self-reflection” (1997, p.1). The potentially depressing subject of ‘self-reflection’ could however lead to a different approach to the language and thought debate: what if language holds little influence on our thought? What if our cultural exposure and worldview play a part in our thought conceptualisation?

Pinker disagrees with the idea of determinism, arguing that “[t]he idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called conventional absurdity […] there is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking…” (1994).  So in opposition to determinism is the idea that ‘universals’ (Evans & Green, 2006, p.54) exist and concepts of objects, actions or even numeric values would still be present in a linguistically void hypothetical society. Bloom describes human thought to be responsive: “[t]here is no such thing as thought. There is only behaviour. The things humans say, the operations they perform, the reactions they have, and the acts in which they engage constitute nothing more than an integration of the responses that they have been forced to make” (1981, p.4). Thought could be perceived by the universalists as a response to the world around them. If there is a need to do something or react to something happening then the thought process will occur. For example, in communities where language does not exist to describe colour it does not mean the concept is void – rather the community may have a description or unique phrase to determine the concept. Everett describes his research into the Pirahã tribe who use language to describe colour concepts in a different way to English speakers: “[e]ach word for colour in Pirahã was actually a phrase. For example, biísai did not mean simply ‘red’. It was a phrase that meant ‘it is like blood’.” (2013, p.257).

Furthermore, the invention of new words to describe new concepts also defies the notion of linguistic determinism. In modern society, the Oxford English Dictionary is continuously updated in order to ‘keep up’ with an ever-changing Web.20 society. With words like ‘selfie’ (a photo of oneself), ‘binge-watching’ (watching many or all episodes of a TV series in rapid succession), and ‘humblebrag’ (to make a modest statement that intends to draw attention to one’s admirable qualities) are now officially part of our modern vocabulary. Surely this could suggest that language is warped around culture and thought?

Personally, I believe that language does shape our day-to-day lives and thoughts, albeit influentially and not totally. Although we can influence and plant seeds of thought into our peer’s own worldview, we still need new language to describe our ever-changing culture… Or maybe the whole language and thought debate is just one big ‘facepalm’ (to cover one’s face with the hand as an expression of exasperation).

GEORGE MORRIS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bloom, A. (1981). The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: a study in the impact on thinking in China and The West. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawerence Erlbaum Associates.

Bloom, P. & Keil, F.C. (2001). Thinking through language. Mind and Language 16(4) 351-367.

Evans, V. (2014). The language myth: why language is not an instinct. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, V. & Green, M. (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Everett, D. (2013). Language, Culture and Thinking. London: Profile Books.

Lamarque, P. (1997). Concise Encyclopaedia of Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Kidlington: Elesevier Science Ltd.

Lund, N. (2003). Language and Thought. (1st ed.). London, United Kingdom: New York: Routledge.

Reynolds, R. (2010). Tribalism. Retrieved April 7, 2017, from

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: United States of America. Penguin: Penguin Science.

Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality.


Are thought and language divorced from each other or destined for inextricable coupling? ISOBEL STANFORD acts as arbiter.

Language and Thought – the most controversial linguistic couple of the 21st century. The relationship between language and thought is certainly a highly debated topic in the field of linguistics. The relationship between language and thought can be defined in the sense that language is used both to communicate with others and to monitor our internal thoughts, or as Harley (2001, p. 1) notes, “in some form or another it so dominates our social and cognitive activity that it would be difficult to imagine what life would be without it’. But that’s exactly it. How would we be able to communicate our thoughts and feelings without language?

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is probably the most well-known theory of the language and thought relationship. We will begin with the fact that there are two versions of this hypothesis. The first is the ‘strong’ version (also known as linguistic determinism) which states that language determines thought. Seems like a good idea in practice right? Wrong. The theory is that the language we speak determines the nature of our thoughts, including ideas and concepts that we are able to have (Lund, 2001, p. 11). It also proposes that thoughts are possible in one language but may not be possible in another. Obviously this sounds like a ridiculous idea because different languages do not necessarily lead to different thoughts about the same concept. A perfect example is the German word ‘Schadenfreude’. Everyone has that little bit of evil in them that takes pleasure in the misfortune of others. Speakers of other languages recognise the concept without needing to have a word for it (Bryson, 1990, p. 4).

To put this into context a little, I will discuss the people of the Pirahã tribe. Everett (2005) noted that members of the tribe do not have numbers within their language. This means that they do not have the concept of being able to count. This side of the argument would say that this is because their language has determined their thoughts leading to them not being aware that numbers exist. If a language lacks a certain concept such as numbers, the question to be answered is whether or not lacking these concepts affects their lives in any way? It can be argued that if they do not know that this concept exists, they are not ‘missing out’ as it signals that they do not need this concept to live their lives. I mean it must be a good tactic to play down how many children you have!

The second is the ‘weak’ version (also known as linguistic relativism) which states that language influences thought. This means that language has a more subtle effect on thought and only influences what we perceive or remember about events or objects. This relates to the idea that if you have a word for something in your language you are more likely to recognise it and remember it than someone who does not have it in their language. Hunt and Agnoli (1991, p.377) have claimed that the hypothesis that language influences thought is so vague that it is unprovable. It seems that it is hard to distinguish whether studies relating to this identify whether perception or memory are being investigated.

Davidoff et al (1999) studied the Berinmo language of Papua New Guinea and identified a colour boundary in English (between blue and green) that does not exist in Berinmo. They also identified a similar colour boundary that exists in Berinmo (between ‘nol’ and ‘wor’) that does not exist in English. Those involved were asked to remember a colour over 30 seconds then to select it from two similar alternatives. The English speakers showed an advantage for blue-green decisions and Berinmo showed an advantage for nol-wor decisions. Davidoff et al (1999, p.204) claim that their results are “consistent with there being a considerable degree of linguistic influence on colour categorisation” and therefore support the weak side of the hypothesis.

Which side would you take in this controversial argument? I and many others are in support for the ‘weak’ side of the argument and this is simply because the ‘strong’ side is simply too abstract in what it believes. Linguistic relativism does have its drawbacks too though and these should not be forgotten. The arguments for the ‘weak’ side of the argument are exactly that – weak. The reasons for this are that there is a lack of tangible evidence for this form.

Language affects thought or thought affects language… Who really knows the answer to this million dollar question?

ISOBEL STANFORD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bryson, B. (1990). Mother tongue (1st ed.). London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

Davidoff, J., Davies, I., and Robertson, D. (1999). Colour categories in a stone-age tribe. Nature, 398, 203-204

Everett, D. (2005). Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã. Current Anthropology 46 (4). 621-646.

Harley, T., A. (2001). The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory (2nd ed.). Hove, United Kingdom: Psychology Press.

Hunt, E., and Agnoli, F. (1991). The Whorfian hypothesis: a cognitive psychological perspective. Psychological Review, 98, 377-389.

Lund, N. (2003). Language and thought (1st ed.). Hove, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Is language and thought just another chicken and egg situation? CHARLOTTE SCOTT ponders snow, colours and glass stains.

The relationship between language and thought has been debated for centuries by linguists. A good way of explaining this complex topic is to think of translating a joke into another language … no matter how hard you try, the joke is never complete until the very last detail. Linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf tried to make sense of the dilemma and were subsequently labelled the originators of what became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis supports the notion that language strongly influences thought and “that language influences the way people perceive and think about the world” (Lund, 2003, p. 10). It is important to note that they did not formally write a hypothesis nor support it with empirical evidence. Other linguists built on the original ideas which were put forward by Sapir & Whorf to form the linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism hypotheses.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis (this can be very complicated) and two versions were recognised. “The ‘strong’ version is that language determines thought […] [and] [t]he ‘weak’ version is that language influences thought” (Lund, 2003, p. 11). The strong version includes many ideas and concepts that we have. Thoughts which are possible in one language may not be possible in another. If you have a word for something in your language, you are more likely to recognise and remember it. For example, “the Italians even have a word for the mark left on a table by a moist glass (culacino)” (Bryson, 2009, p. 4) whereas in English language we do not. Whorf (1956) noted that Inuits use a range of words for ‘snow’ to indicate its category. Try and pronounce the following examples: ‘katiyana’ – night snow, and ‘kiln’ – remembered snow (James, 2017). Lenneberg and Roberts (1956) criticised this theory as it was a circular argument which assumed that “because languages differ, thinking must differ” (as cited in Lund, 2003, p. 13). Think back to those wintery nights, how would you describe snow? Slushy, thick or thin? Does this demonstrate that in the English language we do have variations?

The weak version is broken down into two sections. Firstly, language influences perception and secondly language influences memory (Miller & McNeil, as cited in Lund, 2003, p. 14). Carmichael et al. (1932) supported the weakest form and they showed participants a series of nonsense pictures with a verbal label. This seemed to influence the memory of these nonsense pictures, showing the influence of language on the memory of objects. The second theory links to the way that different languages name and divide colours into categories. Berlin & Kay (1969) compared the basic colour terms that were used in 98 different languages. If a language had two terms they would use black and white but if a language had six terms black, white, red, yellow, blue and green would be used. They were used systematically and the 11 basic colour terms were called the focus colours. People usually pick out the same 11 colours regardless of the colour terms in their language. Can you name all the 11 colours or are you on the conflicting side of the debate?

On the opposing side is the linguistic determinism hypothesis. It is often referred to as “‘the prison house view of language’” (Mooney & Evans, 2015, p. 28). This theory claims that language and thought are separate entities and “[i]f a linguistic sign is not available for a particular concept, that concept is difficult […] for the speaker to imagine” (Mooney & Evans, 2015, p.28).  It is believed that different cultures are shaped by different social interactions and experiences. They would therefore have a language that reflects the perception of their habitat because our thought processes originate from the experiences of our culture. For example, “Italian is the language of love” (Evans, 2014, p. 192). This shows a distinct characteristic of languages due to the way their native speakers think. Political correctness (sorry to add another dimension at this late point) could be described as a social phenomenon. The society and culture we are born into may determine whether we think a word is offensive or not. This shows that we are shaping our language because of the world around us.

So how is language and thought connected? And does language affect how you think? At this rate language and thought will become another chicken and egg situation, so I think we will continue debating this for centuries!

CHARLOTTE SCOTT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Berlin, B. and Kay, P. (1969). Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Bryson, B. (2009). Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Carmichael, L., Hogan, P. and Walter, A. (1932). An experimental study of the effect of language on the reproduction of visually perceived forms. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 15, 1-22.

Evans, V. (2014). The Language Myth: Why Language is not an Instinct. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

James, P. (2017). Inuit Words for Retrieved 28 March 2017, from

Lund, N. (2003). Language and thought (1st ed.). London; New York: Routledge.

Mooney, A., & Evans, B. (2015). Language, society and power: An introduction (4th ed.). London: Routledge.

Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writing of Benjamin Lee Whorf. New York: John Wiley.


To what extent does language influence thought. KATHERINE BRIDGE weighs up universalism and relativity.

What is the relationship between language and thought? Do our thoughts influence our language, or is it the other way around? These are questions that have been dividing linguists for decades.

Frege (1892) saw language as a telescope, through which we see the world and develop thought (see Bloom, 1960, pp. 4-5). This argument encapsulates the relativist stance. and is popularly known as the ‘The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’, with the belief that language influences thought. Within this stance, linguists are divided as to what extent language influences thought. Whorf (1956) is often attributed with the idea that thought is largely determined by our language. Famously, Whorf gave the example of Inuit languages having multiple words for ‘snow’. His theory was supported by Weisgerber, who suggested that speakers of different languages have differing perceptions of the world around them. He states that their use of language resulted in cultural differences, (see Jones, 2013, pp. 6-9). Wittgenstein (1922) also argued in favour of linguistic determinism, and said that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.

The weaker version of this theory, ‘linguistic relativity’, suggests that language only influences thought. This view was suggested by Sapir, who argued that “a common language cannot indefinitely set the seal on a common culture…” (1921, p. 215). Bloom (1981) for instance, argues that children develop thought long before they develop speech. He argued that language cannot, therefore, entirely determine thought. Instead, he pressed the importance of asking not ‘does language determine thought?’ but rather ‘to what extent does language shape thought?’

The other side of the debate is the universalist stance, which argues that thought is independent from language. Regier, Kay, Gilbert, and Irvy (2007, p.165) support this theory, claiming that “language is shaped by universals of human cognition” and that our language is made up of “semantic distinctions drawn from a limited palette of universally available options”. Goldin-Meadow’s 2003 research studies the language of deaf children.  After noticing that deaf children developed communicative skills in patterns similar to that of non-hearing-impaired children, she argues that children do not need a traditional language model to develop cognitive awareness, (pp. 423-519).

In further support of this approach, Berlin and Kay studied colour and cognition. They found that the order in which colour terms were introduced into a developing language was predictable; for example: language begins with colour terms for only light and dark, followed by the introduction of other colours in a universal order. They conclude that languages acquire colour terms chronologically, which implies that thought shapes language (1969).

Kay’s research in brain lateralization concludes that “[the] Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left” (see Gilbert, Regier, Kay & Irvy, 2006). Therefore, though there is evidence to support linguistic determinism, there must be other factors influencing language and thought.

In conclusion, it is clear that this debate traditionally splits linguists into two groups: supporters of relativism, and supporters of universalism. The strong version of the relativist stance, ‘linguistic determinism’, argues that thought is entirely determined by language. The weak version, however, claims that language only influences thought. Linguists who support this weaker version of the stance suggest that the more important question is ‘to what extent does language influence thought?’. The universalist stance states that thought shapes the language that we use, and that our perception of the world enables us to develop languages. However, some theorists reject the idea of oppositional stances, and suggest that there must be elements of both when discussing the relationship between language and thought.

KATHERINE BRIDGE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK



Berlin, B., & Kay, P. (1969). Basic color terms: their universality and evolution. Berkeley,       CA: University of California Press.

Bloom, A. H. (1981). The linguistic shaping of thought. Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum    Associates.

Frege, G. (1892). On sense and reference. In P. Geach & M. Black (Eds.), Philosophical writings of Gottlob Frege. (1960). Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil  Blackwell.

Jones, W. J. (2013). German colour terms: a study in their historical evolution from            earliest times to the present. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins Pub. Co.

Gilbert, A. L., Regier, T., Kay. P., & Irvy, R. B. (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of   America, 103(2), 489-494.

Goldin-Meadow, S. Thought before language: do we think ergative? In D. Gentner, & S. Goldin-Meadow, Language in mind. (2003). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York: Morrow.

Regier, T., Kay, P., Gilbert, A., & Irvy, R. (2007). Language and thought: Which side are you on, anyway? In B. Malt., & W. Wolff (Eds.). Words and the mind: How words   capture human experience (pp. 165-182). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sapir, E. (1921). Language: an introduction to the study of speech. New York City, NY:  Harcourt Brace and Co.

Wittgenstein, L. (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: The Edinburgh Press.

Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought, and reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.