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.


2 thoughts on “To what extent does language influence thought. KATHERINE BRIDGE weighs up universalism and relativity.

  1. Jennifer Crompton says:

    I think that this is a well written blog on an interesting topic. It is clear that the argument about the relationship between language and thought exists on a sort of scale, with strong determinism (which suggests that language determines thought) on one side; and weak relativity (which suggests that language influences thought) on the other side. Based on your research, is there a side of the argument that you are more in favour of? Is there more evidence to support one side compared to the other?

    You mention in your blog post Whorf’s example that there are many words in the Inuit language for ‘snow’, and that this provides evidence suggesting that speakers of different languages perceive the world differently. I think this is very thought provoking, and maybe one reason for the various words for ‘snow’ is because it is important to the Inuit people’s way of life to make distinctions between the different types of snow.

    I have found another of Whorf’s examples which supports linguistic determinism – that the Hopi tribe have no words relating to time, and so it is suggested that “they were actually unable to think about time, and about the difference between past and present events, in the way that a speaker of English could” (Chapman, 2006, p. 110). However, a lot of the evidence for linguistic determinism is flawed, for instance the Hopi people may not have specific words that relate to time, but they do have “various kinds of calendars and various devices for time-keeping based on the sundial” (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams, 2011, p.313).

    Chapman, S. (2006). Thinking about language: Theories of English. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
    Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., & Hyams, N. (2011). An introduction to language (9th ed.). London, United Kingdom: Wadsworth.

  2. Jessica Woolley says:

    A really interesting blog, Katherine. I specifically like how you retain a balanced discussion throughout, and thus, are able to highlight the division amongst linguists when it concerns the connection between language and thought. There are a couple of things you mention that I was unfamiliar with, but, your weighing up of the theories and ideas involved has provided a great overall account of the topic.

    As someone who still remains on the fence when it concerns the connection between language and thought, I have found your discussion and overall description of both relativism and universalism to be particularly useful, especially with your inclusion of several different linguists and their theories and positions on the matter. I have found a lot of your examples to be incredibly interesting and thought provoking, particularly your inclusion of Bloom, and his discussion on children being able to think long before they can speak, and of course, what this might suggest about the connection between language and thought. But, whilst I have found many of the linguists’ examples you have included to be intriguing, I am still curious about your opinion, and whether you have found yourself siding more with the relativist or universalist stance? But also more generally, whether you think that language influences thought at all?

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