Theory of Linguistic Relativity

The theory of linguistic relativity consists of the hypothesis that the structure of a language and the way it is formed expresses a lot about the manner the speakers view and understand the world. In other words, a language’s structure affects its speaker’s worldview or cognition.

The numerous cultural concepts intrinsic in any language affect the experienced world and its cognitive classification such that the thought and behavior of people speaking different languages vary. Both language and thought interact in a cyclical process which is this linguistic relativity. People think what they speak, and what one speaks can further lead to new thoughts.

It can be understood as both a strong as well as a weak hypothesis as determined by Roger Brown. Strong in the sense that it explains how thought is determined by language as the linguistic categories set the limit and determine the cognitive categories. Language affects thought if the units of thought are words from the natural language. On the other hand, the weak version fails to highlight other influences that language has. It only speaks about influence linguistic categories have over thoughts and decisions.

The two forms of linguistic relativity are linguistic determinism and linguistic influence. Linguistic determinism is the strongest form of the theory. According to this, language and its structures have the power to limit and determine what humans think, their knowledge, and other thought processes including memory, perception, and so on. It also holds the view that different people speaking different languages have different thought processes. Although earlier it was prominent, in modern times it has been discredited by linguistics.

The weaker form is called linguistic influence. According to this, only some particular areas of cognition are restricted or constrained by language. Due to this language cannot be considered as being determinative.

This theory is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism. However, many claims that this name is not appropriate as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf never co-authored any works, nor did they state any kind of a hypothesis. In addition, they also did not form any sort of a dichotomy as strong or weak in this hypothesis. This idea was indeed expressed more clearly by 19th-century thinkers like Wilhelm von Humboldt. These thinkers believed that a nation’s spirit is expressed through language. Although this hypothesis is important in stating that language shapes reality, it should not be overemphasized as there are some linguistic universals which are common to every language. Many time words are not invented to construct new phenomena. They are invented to reflect those phenomena in reality.

For Sapir and Whorf, even though language influenced people’s thought processes or cognition, they are often not aware of it. They only realize its effects while moving from one culture to another. One of the common examples provided to explain this is: while an English man refers to snow by only one name, an Inuit Eskimo has several terms for it; wet, frosty, clinging snow, etc.


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