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.

JACK HOLLAND tries to distinguish dream from reality as he tackles linguistic relativity

The relationship between the language we speak and the thoughts we envision is rather hazy. In many ways it is like trying to remember a dream. You almost come to a conclusion, but you can’t quite finalise that last detail. Of the many sides to this debate, I aim to detail the belief that language determines or influences thought. This train of thought is often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Before delving into the two forms of this hypothesis, it is important to note that the titular Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf are not the first to propose this argument, but they are arguably the most strongly associated with it.

The first form we’re going to look at is the strong form, also known as ‘linguistic determinism’ (or, more affectionately, the ‘prison house’ view of Language). Edward Sapir is considered a proponent of this form of the hypothesis, and he’s quoted as saying “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” (1958. P. 69). To dumb this down a bit (largely so that I can understand it), he’s basically saying that because different languages are, well, different, they can’t all possibly represent the same concepts. Let’s take a look at this in context.

Take an experiment that involved speakers from two different countries, straight lines, and squares. Then, according to McWhorter (2014: 5),  “show an English speaker – who says a long time – a line slowly lengthening toward an end point on screen, and then a square slowly filling up from bottom to top, and she’s better at guessing how long it will take the line to hit the end than for the square to be full”. Taking this experiment at face value, it seems obvious that linguistic determinism is relevant, and exists in the real world. To further support this, observations of Brazil’s Piraha tribe have shown that they don’t have numbers, and they also do not count. A proponent of linguistic determinism could reasonably argue that the lack of numbers in the Pirahas’ language has determined their thoughts (or should I say, lack of thoughts) involving numbers.

However, unfortunately for linguistic determinism, we don’t have to stop there. While there are differences in the times it took for different language speakers to guess how long the line or square takes to reach a certain point, these differences are practically insignificant. In fact, they’re so insignificant that it’s difficult for me to present it as an argument without feeling dishonest. We’ll come back to the Piraha tribe momentarily.

The second form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is known as ‘linguistic relativism’. Benjamin Whorf is strongly associated with this form (though some critics argue that he is misunderstood – the arguments never end!). Linguistic relativism argues that languages only influences thought, rather than determining it. Whorf states that “[t]he 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” (1940: 213-14). Whorf is basically saying that as different concepts become apparent to us, it is the linguistic systems in our mind that sort and decipher them. This means that while language does not govern our thoughts, it organises and therefore influences them.

Earlier I mentioned the Piraha tribe. Well, it turns out “that the Pirahas’ lack of counting and their lack of number words are both caused by a cultural taboo against unnecessary generalisations beyond the here and now” (Everett, 2012. P. 256). To put it simply, while a linguistic determinist might (absurdly) argue that the Piraha can’t conceive the concept of ‘quantity’ because of their lack of words for it, a linguistic relativist might argue that their cultural taboo of generalisation has influenced the thought processes in their cognitive linguistic systems which in turn influenced their language, and their thoughts about quantity.

In case you haven’t guessed already, of the two forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I (and pretty much everyone else) support the weaker form, as the implications of the strong form (1984, anyone?) are just plain unreasonable. Unfortunately, I have a problem with linguistic relativism too. Earlier I made a rather odd comparison to dreams. Well that’s because nobody can provide concrete evidence for the weak form. Any evidence or claims provided are often weak, and are themselves, debatable, and it just doesn’t leave a curious linguist with any satisfaction, a bit like eating at McDonalds.

It’s always close to convincing me, but nothing more.

JACK HOLLAND, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Everett, D. (2012). Language: The Cultural Tool. London: Profile Books.

McWhorter, J. H. (2014). The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sapir, E. (1958). Culture, Language and Personality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Whorf, B. L. (1940). Science and Linguistics. Technology Review, 35, 229-31, 247-8.


Which came first: The language or the thought? CINZIA WARBURTON investigates.

Imagine a world without language. Would you still be able to think about things? When you do think, do you think in a specific language? Could you still think about something, yet not know what it was called? These are perhaps difficult questions to answer as we may never know the answer –  all we can do is find evidence that supports the argument that language does shape thought and evidence that negates it.

According to Sapir (1921), “I quite frankly commit myself to the idea that thought is impossible without language, that thought is language” (cited in Leavitt, 2011: 136). I see this as a particularly narrow-minded view and believe there is more substance to this debate. Sapir worked closely with his student Benjamin Whorf to attempt to find evidence that we absolutely need language in order to think. This was eventually labelled ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. Subsequent theories revised this towards what is often known as ‘linguistic relativism’ which claims that language can shape thought, rather than totally control it (Mooney, 2010). Now this is a theory I can ‘get on board with’. Mooney (2010) explores how relativism considers habitual modes of thinking in different languages, which basically means that each language has ways of representing the same concept based on their own linguistic habits. This supports the claim that language does shape thought, but it does not control us completely, it just influences the way in which we think. Deutscher (2011) assesses the extent to which different languages have different ways of representing the same concepts, therefore implying that we think differently. For example, he highlights the absence of numbers from the language of the Pirahã tribe. Instead of using numbers to count, they just have one word which works as the equivalent of the word “many” in English. Can you imagine a world without numbers? Can you imagine not needing numbers in your everyday life? No, of course you can’t because it is an integral part to our society. The question still remains: if they do not have a language of numbers, then do they still have the concept? Theorists who would argue that language does shape thought, would say that they do not have any concept of numbers.

However, according to Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010:51) “[t]hought does not require language”. They ask if a word for a concept does not exist in a language, does that concept exist? Apparently it does. Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) disagree with the assumption proposed on the other side of the argument that a concept is unthinkable if we do not have a linguistic sign for it. They highlight the absence of the equivalent to the word ‘scaramanzia’ in Italian from the English language. Scaramanzia is the concept that when you think something bad is going to happen, you actually tell yourself it is going to happen in the belief that it will prevent it from happening. Do you still do this? Yes. Do you have a linguistic sign for it? No. So this means that you can think without language right? Yes. But the question that still needs to be answered is: If you had a clear linguistic sign for a concept would it be more prominent to you and more concrete? Do the Italians understand this concept better than us because it is a clear sign in their language?

Given the evidence, I would agree that language does shape language but I would not say it controlled it completely. I do believe that we think in our own language and having a particular linguistic sign does influence it, yes, but it is not completely necessary. I believe that we can still understand a concept without having a word for it, but I also believe that language helps us to categorise it in our minds and makes it easier to understand it even further. I make this conclusion based on a sentence I must say at least once a week: “I know what I mean, but I just cannot find the word for it!”

 CINZIA WARBURTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Deutscher, G. (2011). Through the Language Glass. London: Arrow Books.

Leavitt, J. (2011). Linguistic Relativities: Language Diversity and Modern Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mooney, A. (2011). Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Napoli, D.J. Lee-Schoenfield, V. (2010). Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions  about Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.