Does language influence our colour and number perception? JAMES NORTON thinks through language and thought

The linguistic relativity hypothesis has provoked much controversy amongst linguists, and rarely does anybody sit on the fence. Everett (2013) describes the hypothesis as “the notion that thought or cognition do vary in accordance with peoples languages” meaning that speakers of different languages conceptualise and view their own worlds differently. But does thought really affect the way an individual conceptualises their world? From my understanding of the Piraha language (Everett, 2008) and the lack of recursive numerals evident, to the limited amount of basic colour terms found in the Berinmo language (Davidoff, Davies and Robertson, 1999), it seems there is much evidence to support the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

The Berinmo tribe have fascinated linguists for many years with the most prominent work emerging from Davidoff, Davies and Robertson (1999) who found that Berinmo speakers only have five basic colour terms which means Berinmo is labelled a ‘grue’ language. David, Davies and Robertson believe that speakers of languages which encode all 11 basic colour terms conceptualise colours differently to speakers who have a reduced amount of colour terms available to them in their native language. Surely an English speaker conceptualises the colours ‘green’ and ‘blue’ differently to a Berinmo speaker who cannot differentiate between these colours and names them ‘grue’?

Berlin and Kay (1969) support the Universalist theory which holds the view that colours categories are innate physiological process rather than a cultural ones. This directly opposes linguistic relativity, as the hypothesis believes that a language is heavily influenced by the cultural experiences of many generations of speakers and language categories are not in fact innate.

Berlin and Kay’s (1969) implicational scale regarding colour further challenges linguistic relativity, as they believe all languages will develop until they have encoded all 11 basic colour terms, and languages which have not yet done this, such as Chinese and Thai, are deemed as ‘evolving’. By stating this, Berlin and Kay believe that everyone in the world conceptualise colours the same, and eventually through evolution all of the world’s languages will have encoded all 11 basic colour terms.

I would strongly disagree with this implicational scale and deem it false, as Mandarin Chinese is an older language than English yet English has two more colour terms so how does the scale explain this? Could there be cultural differences leading to the encoding of more basic colour terms? Also, the research conducted by Davidoff, Davies and Robertson, (1999) found that speakers from different language conceptualise colours differently depending on their first language. Surely speakers of different language do conceptualise colours differently, and it isn’t just the fact some languages are less evolved?

The linguistic relativity debate is fuelled greatly by many languages across the world which differ with regards to the gender of nouns. German is an example of this, as there are four different categories a noun can fall into: masculine; feminine; neuter; and plural. For example ‘die abtei’ translates to ‘abbey’ in English, however as the noun is feminine in German, does that mean a German speaker conceptualises an Abbey with female connotations compared to an English speaker who has no distinction between masculine and feminine nouns?

The Piraha language has also been viewed as a strong asset in the linguistic relativity debate, as Everett found in his 2008 study that the Piraha have no mental representation for sets of large cardinal numbers. As they have no mental representation of quantities greater than one, they are extremely restricted in remembering large numbers both spatially and temporally. An English speaker would encode the quantity through numerals which could be recited from memory, however a Piraha speaker could not. Does this not imply that English speakers conceptualise number and quantity differently to Piraha speakers?

One of the most influential figures to discredit linguistic relativity is Chomsky, as the hypothesis directly challenges his theory of universal grammar. UG holds the belief that the world’s languages share the same set of innate structural rules, and the linguistic relativity hypothesis holds the view that a language is constructed from the cultural experiences of its speakers. Again I would side with the linguistic relativity hypothesis, as it is evident not only from Berinmo and Piraha but many other small indigenous languages, that not all languages follow the same structure, and languages like Piraha deviate so much from Chomsky’s proposed structural rules that it is a strong factor in disproving UG and strengthening the hypothesis that is linguistic relativity.

I will end with one question, which refers back to one of the proponents of linguistic relativity – Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956). If in the Inuit language have over 100 words for snow, does that mean that that an Inuit speaker conceptualises snow differently when compared to an English speaker who has less than half a dozen words for snow?

JAMES NORTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Berlin, B. and Kay, P. (1969). Basic color terms. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davidoff, J., Davies, I., & Roberson, D. (1999). Colour categories in a stone-age tribe. Nature398(6724), 203.

Everett, D. (2013). Language: The cultural tool. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd.

Gordon, P. (2004). Numerical cognition without words: Evidence from Amazonia. Science306(5695), 496-499.

Whorf, B. L. (1956): Language, Thought and Reality (ed. J. B. Carroll). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


A language without numbers? How do mothers know how many children they have? HELENA WHITEHOUSE explores linguistic relativity

Unimaginable isn’t it, mothers not knowing how many children they have? But if a language doesn’t have numbers how could one know? Ideas such as these led the American linguists Whorf and Sapir to believe that language is the “straightjacket” that keeps us from truly experiencing the world (Everett, 2013, p.255). They claimed that the way we perceive the world is based largely upon the language that we use, and the limitations it has on us. But if this is the case, does that mean the language we speak affects the way we interpret the world?

The work of Sapir and his student Whorf eventually became known as the ‘Sapir –Whorf’ hypothesis. A ‘strong’ version of this – ‘linguistic determinism’- is the idea that the way a person thinks is totally determined by the language they speak (Everett, 2013, p.255). The theory argues that if a language is missing words to describe a concept, these concepts cannot be understood by speakers. This is kind of like the idea of a horse wearing blinkers, in that their view has been restricted so they cannot see anything past them. However, most researchers disregard this extreme form.

A weaker version of this view of the relationship between language and thought is called ‘linguistic relativity’. This is the idea that both language and thought are important in perceiving the world, and that they lean on each other for support (Humboldt, 1988, p.54). Within this theory, is the idea that cultures influence languages differently (Hussein, 2012, p.642). Whorf (1956) argued that Inuit cultures have over 50 words for snow. This is because they need to know the exact type of snow that surrounds them, to make sure it is safe to hunt or sleigh. In English, there are far fewer words for snow as it mostly does not affect our daily lives. As a Brummy living in the curry capital of the UK, for me it would be more beneficial to have over 50 words to describe a Birmingham balti rather than snow!

Linguistic relativity argues that the Inuits are perceiving the snow in a different way, as they would be absorbing more details to choose the best word to describe it (Whorf, 1956, p.210). An example supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be seen in Everett’s (2013) study. In his study of the Amazonian tribe, the Pirahã, he found there are no words for numbers in their language. Everett believes this is the case because the Pirahã have no need for numbers, as they do not live in a modern society where there is a money-based economy (2013, p.260).

Everett tried teaching Pirahã adults to count, over many months. However, at the end of these months, not one Pirahã member was able to count to ten or add one plus one (Everett, 2005, p.626). This seemed to be evidence that the people of the Pirahã tribe cannot grasp the concept of numeracy. Their lack of words for numbers is restricting how they think. Their blinkers are well and truly on.

Nevertheless, there are examples which challenge the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Everett (2013) found that there is also a lack of colour words in the Pirahã language. This lack of colour words is due to the fact that the Pirahã people do not need them. They know every piece of flora and fauna and can recognise each species of animal. They do not need these descriptive words as every object has its own name (Everett, 2013, p.256). This, however does not mean they cannot describe colours. Everett (2013) points out that any member of the Pirahã tribe can describe any colour to you, however, in maybe a phrase rather than a single word. They may, for instance, use “xahoasai” which means “it is unripe” to describe the colour ‘green’ (Everett, 2013, p.256). This shows that people can think beyond their language to create new terms. To do this there must be room for independent thought that is not being restricted by a speaker’s language.

Personally, I am undecided as to whether language restrains us. I can confidently say I cannot think of more than five different words for snow in English, so I feel I am limited there. But if I do not know I am limited, am I truly limited? Perhaps the famous quote “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein, 1922, p.45), is accurate and there is a whole lot of life we are missing as we do not have the capacity to express it. Or perhaps we are just making it all up as we go along.

HELENA WHITEHOUSE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Everett, D. (2005). Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã another look at the design features of human language. Current Anthropology46(4), 621-646.

Everett, D. (2013). Language: The cultural tool. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd.

Humboldt, W. (1988). On language: The diversity of human language-structure and its influence on the mental development of mankind. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.​

Hussein, B. A. S. (2012). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis today. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2(3), 642-646.

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

Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company Inc.







Are we imprisoned by our language? GEORGINA GUY joins the linguistic relativity debate.

Imagine you were born in a prison. You’d be unable to escape the restrictions of your cell, unable to experience things outside of your confinement, unable to even think about concepts beyond the surrounding four walls. What if I told you that the language you speak is that prison, restraining you from having experiences outside of the limits of your language? This is, after all, the strongest version of Edward Sapir’s and Benjamin Whorf’s renowned hypothesis, that language completely determines how we think about the world.

A less dramatic, and frankly more credible, version of their hypothesis is that language influences how we think about the world around us: it’s known as linguistic relativity (Hussein, 2012, p. 642). In other words, the language we speak can strongly influence how we live our lives! Just imagine that your language didn’t have words for numbers, just like the Pirahã tribe in Brazil (Everett, 2013, p. 260). Try to get your head around not being able to count how many pets you have! Or picture yourself alone in the middle of a forest at night, without your mobile phone, but knowing exactly where due north is, just like speakers of the Australian aboriginal tongue Guugu Yimithirr can do, because their language uses compass points instead of left or right (Nomikou, 2016).

On the one hand, linguistic relativity seems a very plausible theory, when we take into consideration the differences between languages. As I’m sure you’re aware, all languages have different structures, including different words, grammatical constructions, and pronunciations (Hussein, 2012, p. 642). But does this cause people to categorise the world around them, and therefore think about things, differently?

One study you may not know about that supports the existence of linguistic relativity involves the (I originally assumed universal!) difference between a mug and a cup. To me at least, a mug is made of enamel, has a handle and can hold hot drinks, whilst a cup is plastic and handleless. The Spanish language though doesn’t have this difference, so its speakers call both objects “una taza”. In an interesting experiment by Boutonnet, Dering, Viñas-Guasch and Thierry (2013), 13 native Spanish speakers and 14 native English speakers had their brain activity monitored whilst detecting differences between different objects. What they found supports the existence of linguistic relativity, as none of the Spanish speakers detected a difference between a mug and a cup, because their language doesn’t have this distinction. Who would have thought that language can influence how we categorise and think about even simple objects we use every day?

Other linguists disagree with the concept of linguistic relativity, and claim language doesn’t affect how we perceive things, as it’s merely a way to express what you’re thinking (Bloom & Keil, 2001, pp. 363-364). So, the differences between languages can be compared to a game of Chinese whispers: parts of the original message may be altered when passed between speakers, or when translated from one language to another. I wonder whether emojis could get the same message across, or is language really necessary?

Something else to consider is whether cultures influence language more than languages influence culture. Thinking back to the Pirahã language, which I mentioned before, does this not include numbers simply because their culture doesn’t need them (McWhorter, 2014, p. 16)?

Another argument is that we can still grasp concepts that we don’t have words for in our language. Gaining weight after binge-eating whilst emotional is known as “kummerspeck” in German, and whilst the English language doesn’t have a word for that, we can still understand the idea (and may even know how it feels!). Similarly, we have a film titled ‘The Day after Tomorrow’, a concept which translates to the one word “zeg” in Georgian. My German friend can still understand the concept of a fortnight, even though her language doesn’t have a specific word for it, as they instead use “vierzehn Tage”, or 14 days. If linguistic relativity is correct, then I should be better than her at tracking the timespan of a fortnight because English has a word for it. In my own experience, this isn’t the case; we both perceive the concept of a fortnight in the same way, and the different languages we speak don’t affect this.

So then, is language a prison-cell, restricting what we can think about? Is Wittgenstein (1921, p. 74) right to say that “[t]he limits of my language mean the limits of my world”? Or is language instead a thing of beauty, shaped by cultures and life experiences, which allows us to think about infinite concepts from all around the world?

GEORGINA GUY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Boutonnet, B., Dering, B., Viñas-Guasch, N., & Thierry, G. (2013). Seeing objects through the language glass. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(10), 1702–1710.

Everett, D. (2013). Language: The cultural tool. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd.

Hussein, B. A. S. (2012). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis today. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2(3), 642-646.

McWhorter, J. H. (2014). The language hoax: Why the world looks the same in any language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Nomikou, P. (2016, April 1). Language and thought [Video file].

Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company Inc.


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



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