Linguistic Relativism and Determinism Linguistic relativism and linguistic determinism: comparing and contrasting two linguistic theories

This essay explores linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism which have been the subject of considerable scientific debate and the two theories can be viewed as being in competition with one another. Linguistic relativism is an idea that is related to how language is structured and is used by people and can be viewed as a weak form of linguistic determinism. The central idea of linguistic relativism is that the language spoken by a given person impacts the way that that person views the world. On the other hand, linguistic determinism is a stronger form of the same position that agrees that language affects the way that a person thinks and perceives their surroundings but also states that language is determinant in forming how a person thinks. Therefore, both theories attempt to demonstrate that the way that individuals think is influenced by the language that they use to communicate.

The central debate between the two theories is that of the primacy of language – whether language merely affects the way that a person thinks or whether language is actually what determines thinking patterns. Both of these theories have support from many different linguistic aspects. For linguistic relativism, these include the differences in thought resultant from lexical and syntactical differences between different languages, the different pairs of equivalent words in various languages, the distinct ways that words are grouped in different languages, the element of borrowed words, the effect of language on physical perception, observations from studies of bilingual speakers, the element of swearing, and the cultural differences that are embedded in language. Linguistic determinism has support from the idea that linguistic vocabularies and grammar structures may both determine the way that a person conceives of and interacts with their surroundings. Thus, linguistic relativism is the idea that the language spoken by a given person has an impact on how that person perceives the world around them. This idea can also be described as “every language presents its own picture [of the world] different in many ways from the others.” i [2008a, 59] There have been debates surrounding the primacy of the influence of language on thought and culture and given this, the focus of the early linguistic theorist Sapir was to “emphasize the interaction and mutual influence of language, thought, and culture.” ii [Ibid] In other words, some proponents of the theory of linguistic relativism were careful not to unilaterally declare that language is what determines the way one thinks, but rather stated that there are interactive effects between language, thought, and culture. This is in contrast to the position of linguistic determinism, which as described later in this essay, is the position that language determines the way that an individual thinks about the world. Therefore, the differences between the two positions can be more clearly described as linguistic relativism emphasizing a possibly primary effect of language on thought, while linguistic determinism states that the language of an individual fully determines their ways of thinking about the world.

The question of the primacy of language has been approached following an interdisciplinary approach, engaging different fields such as philosophy, medicine, psychology, amidst many others. In these examinations of linguistic effects on patterns of thought, the work of Boroditsky is notable. His work was the first to note empirical examples of differences in thought and perception as originated from the lexical or syntactical differences between various languages. The implication of these studies has been to shift the previously predominant perception that the patterns of human thought are universal and thusly are not dependent on linguistic and cultural differences. Other studies such as those carried out by Saxton and Towse have also found support for the theory of linguistic relativism. iii [2008c, 60]

The specific differences between different languages have been analyzed through the use of many different methodologies. For example, Marina argues that there are different ‘modes of expression’ in different languages. iv [2008d, 60] For instance, the way that time is viewed and handled in different languages is different. Whereas in Russian the word ‘сутки’ roughly means “time of the day,” with the equivalent word ‘para’ in Lithuanian, there is no equivalent single word in English, a fact which is argued to impact the way that Russian and Lithuanian speakers view time. This linguistic difference gives rise to the fact that an expression like “three o’clock in the afternoon” does not make sense to a Russian or a Lithuanian speaker. v [Ibid] As a different example, English speakers describe a certain cleaning appliance as a “vacuum cleaner,” a word which is clearly derived from what the tool does – that is a tool that cleans through the use of the vacuum. At the same time, the exact same appliance is known as ‘пылесос’ in Russian which means “something that sucks up dust.” v [Ibid] As can be seen from this example, whereas the English language focuses on the methodology by which a vacuum cleaner works in the definition of the word, the Russian language defines the same word by the action that the tool generally performs. This difference gives rise to a difference in the distinct ways that Russian and English people think of the world. Indeed, speakers of Russian can attest that their language has a certain pragmatic focus in general, wherein object names are generally derived from the actions that said objects perform. This difference could be a contributing factor to the pragmatic way that many Russians tend to view the world.

Another difference between the English and Russian languages is the fact that different equivalent words are compatible or incompatible within and between the two languages. Whereas English has a variety of terms that contain the root of ‘heavy’ including the word ‘heavy’ itself, ‘heavy traffic,’ ‘heavy-handed,’ and ‘heavy-headed,’ the Russian terms with the same meaning are not related to one another. Therefore, the words that are linguistically and intellectually linked in English are not linked in this way in Russian. Specifically, the word for ‘heavy’ in Russian is ‘тяжёлый,’ the word for ‘heavy traffic’ is ‘сильное движение,’ the term ‘heavy-handed’ is ‘неуклюжий,’ and finally the term for ‘heavy-headed’ is ‘тупоголовый.’ vi [2008g, 61] It can be seen that none of these terms share a common root. If these terms were to be translated literally back to English, ‘heavy’, ‘strong movement,’ ‘ungraceful,’ and ‘dull headed’ would be obtained, respectively. Clearly, although these terms are related in English, they are not related in Russian, showing evidence of a difference in thinking between the speakers of the two languages.

Moreover, different languages tend to group objects in different ways. For instance, English has different and unrelated terms for ‘coupling,’ ‘clutch,’ ‘sleeve,’ ‘socket,’ ‘collar,’ and ‘box,’ whereas Russian has the exact same term for all of these objects – the word ‘муфта.’ vii [Ibid] This means that these distinct objects are perceived as related to a Russian speaker, but the same group of objects are thought of as unrelated by the English speaker. This means that speakers of various languages consider different things to be related and consider different objects as belonging to the same category, which is undeniably a significant cognitive difference.

Finally, the different languages of the world often borrow words from other languages. A language that has contributed to the development of many European languages is Latin. However, the same Latin term is often borrowed in disparate ways in different languages. For instance, the word ‘actual’ in English derives from the Latin term ‘actualis.’ The Russian language borrows the same word to make the Russian term ‘актуально’ which means ‘that what is significant.’ viii [2008i, 62] This difference is resultant from the fact that the Latin word ‘actualis’ itself has two different meanings – one meaning ‘real,’ with the other meaning ‘significant.’ A similar pattern can be observed with the Latin word ‘concurrentia’ which is the basis of the English word ‘concurrent,’ and the Russian word ‘конкуренция’ which means a competition. These examples show in a conclusive fashion that “linguistic relativity is based on the needs, preferences, and traditions of every language.” ix [Ibid] These differences lead to potential difficulties for individuals learning a new language, specifically in that these people may attempt to use the word extensions or ‘shortcuts’ that are familiar to them in their native languages. This gives rise to miscommunication and challenges in learning new languages.

A different aspect of linguistic relativity that has been explored by researchers is the idea that physical perception is influenced by the unique characteristics of a given language. Whorf has argued that if a language does not have a word for a given object or event, a speaker of that language would have difficulty perceiving it. However, this is still a topic of debate and counterexamples have been found. For instance, the New Guinea aboriginal people can indeed discriminate between “the colours of green and blue even though they have only one lexical entry to describe both colours.” x [2006a, 289] Therefore, it can be seen that the debate of whether linguistic relativity helps or hinders perception is still very much open. In general, however, the conclusion is that linguistic relativity is, at the very least, involved in the way that individuals perceive the world.

Indeed, numerous studies have shown “that lexical coding of colour influences categorical perception of colour.” xi [2010a, 9] What this means is that individuals tend to perceive colours as more similar if their names belong to the same linguistic categories. Given the fact that different languages group colours in dissimilar ways, this fact can be used to support linguistic relativism. A recent study of Japanese-English bilinguals found support for this theory. What is notable is that the Japanese language has an additional word for light blue, called ‘mizuiro.’ xii [Ibid] This study showed that of all the study participants, those who used English more frequently had more difficulty distinguishing blue and light blue stimulus pairs rather than those subjects who used Japanese more frequently. This demonstrates that “bilingual cognition may be dynamic and flexible.” xii [Ibid]

Research on colour perception in relation to language has shown that speakers of different languages indeed perceive colour stimuli differently from one another. This is interesting because it shows that language uses an attention-directing mechanism in order to discriminate between various colors, as well as to categorize the colours perceived by an individual. Essentially, if a language has the same name for two different colours, the user of that language perceives the two colours as more similar. Although this is perhaps an unsurprising finding, it does rather convincingly demonstrate the role of language in influencing the perception of an individual. As an example, Russian speakers were able to discriminate between a lighter shade of blue and a darker shade of blue more easily than English speakers. This can be partially attributed to the fact that Russian has two distinct words for light blue and dark blue – ‘голубой’ and ‘синий’ – whereas English uses the same word, ‘blue,’ for both colours. xiii [2010d, 10]

For bilingual speakers, a new phenomenon of interest appears. When bilingual speakers are fluent in two languages, each of which encodes reality in different ways, the speakers display variable cognitive behaviour, meaning that they sometimes behave like monolingual speakers of the first language, and sometimes like monolingual speakers of the second language. xiv [Ibid] This effect is explained by the idea that linguistic competence and sociocultural immersion are both factors in language processing.xv [2010f, 11] In other words, the fluency of the individual in each language, as well as the degree to which the speaker is immersed in a certain linguistic environment both play a role in how the individual encodes their reality. In other words, if an English-Russian bilingual speaker is more fluent in Russian than in English, they will tend to favour the Russian modes of perception. On the other hand, if an English-Russian bilingual speaker is equally fluent in both Russian and English, then the degree to which they are immersed in either the English- or Russian-speaking environment is what determines whether the Russian or the English language exerts a greater influence on their perception. This demonstrates that language has a profound impact on the perception and thought patterns of individuals and that the primary language that one uses is the one that has a greater influence on the perception of the bilingual individual.

Another area which has shown support for linguistic relativity is the concept of swearing. A study had participants “read aloud swear words, euphemisms of the swear words, and neutral stimuli while their autonomic activity was measured by electrodermal activity.” xvi [2011a, 1] A greater response was found to swear words than to euphemisms or neutral stimuli. The argument is that this is occurring due to verbal conditioning due to the fact that the phonological form of the swear word is associated directly with an affective response in the speaker. xvii [Ibid] It is important to note that not only are different words used as swear words in different languages, but that the words that are considered to be profane in one language are often perfectly innocuous in others. For instance, the Swedish swear word of ‘jävlar’ means the rather innocuous ‘devils’ in English. In order to avoid using the word, the word ‘järnvägar’ is used as a euphemism by Swedes instead. The latter word means ‘railroads,’ which leads to an effect of association between ‘devils’ and ‘railroads’ in Swedish, an effect that certainly does not occur for English speakers. xviii [Ibid]

Thus, strong electrodermal activity responses to swear words are partially due to form-affect associations. xix [2011d, 7] What this shows is that word forms can indeed evoke direct emotional reactions, and the words that provoke such emotional reactions vary between languages. This is not only limited to the actual phonological form of a given word, but also by the definition of the word. In using a euphemism, a speaker uses a word that is similar in some way to the swear word that they are referring to. Euphemisms are readily recognized by native speakers, but non-native speakers can struggle to detect and comprehend these innate links. Put another way, the pairings of swear words and euphemisms vary by language.

It is also important to note that different languages used by people around the world are not merely different ways of conveying information and talking about the world. Embedded in a language is not only a certain mode of thinking about the world, but also vital aspects of a given linguistic culture. Namely, a language has features such as cultural schemas, categories, and metaphors, many of which are highly unique to the specific language and do not translate well, if at all, between different languages. This cultural aspect lends more support to the thesis that the language of a speaker has a strong effect on the way that the given individual thinks about and interacts with the world.

The idea of culture being embedded in language is referred to as “cultural linguistics.” xx [2017a, 84] Linguistic relativism can be framed as the idea that the words that a language contains determines what sorts of possible things a user of that language can think about. An example of this involves Aboriginal English. The speakers of this language use familiar English concepts such as ‘family,’ ‘home,’ and ‘sorry,’ to name a few examples. xxi [Ibid] However, there are cultural elements embedded in these concepts by the Aboriginal people that are significantly different from those that British English people may be used to. For instance, the concept of ‘family’ in Aboriginal English expands to far beyond just the nuclear family as it does for the British speaker. An Aboriginal person may use the word ‘brother,’ ‘cousin,’ or even ‘cousin brother’ to refer to a person with whom they come into contact with frequently. xxii [Ibid] This is significant because not only are the same words used in a different way, but also because of the fact that these words evoke different schemas and categories of ideas for Aboriginal people as opposed to users of British English xxiii [Ibid] This means that the thinking and perception patterns that are evoked by the exact same words are different for Aboriginal people than for the British, despite the fact that both groups use variants of the same language.

Therefore, the conceptualizations of different language users are different, due to the diverse cultural elements engrained in various languages around the world. This difference leads to the fact that users of different languages have diverse ways of thinking, partially due to the unique cultural associations present in the various languages of the world. The mental associations evoked by the same word can be vastly different for users of different languages, demonstrating evidence of a distinct difference in ways of thinking about the world that is resultant from differences in language.

Linguistic determinism, in contrast to language relativism, is the position that language is a “determinant of perception and thought.” xxiv [1957a, 1] This idea has two major subcomponents – one that states that the vocabulary of a language determines how a person perceives the world, and the second stating that the grammatical features of a language also affect human perception. The first portion of this is more straightforward to understand. Indeed, what is perceived by a person needs to be formulated in words, and this formulation occurs when an idea is conveyed to another, but is also invoked when an individual thinks about a concept. This is due to the fact that when a person is engaged in thinking, they tend use an internal monologue. It seems quite natural to conclude that perceptions that are already described by an individual’s language would be favored over those concepts that are not covered by the individual’s language.

The second subcomponent is a somewhat more involved argument, and therefore needs more detailed exploration. In the study of English, there has been debate about whether nouns and verbs have different semantic structures. It was found through studies that there can be three functional classes in English – those of the particular noun, the mass noun, and the verb. xxv [1957b, 3] These findings suggest that all three of these functional classes are involved in the acquisition of proficiency of the English language. Therefore, as these grammatical categories can be quite diverse in various languages, the speakers of different languages can therefore acquire different cognitive categories. This is significant as when one is learning a language, the grammatical category of a word suggests the word’s meaning. Thus, this demonstrates that the grammatical categories of language do indeed affect the cognition of the speakers of a given language. The differences resultant from the various ways that different languages group words into grammatical categories can thus lead to different perceptions of the world.

Therefore, through analyzing the various linguistic elements and the evidence that is suggested by the different studies, it does appear to be the case that the way that an individual thinks is at least partially derived from the language that they utilize. This is a conclusion that is consistent with the thesis of linguistic relativism. On the other hand, it appears that more support is required in order to lend credence to the more expansive claim of linguistic determinism that argues that language determines the objects and events of which a person can conceive. With that said, the position that thinking is influenced by language appears to be well-supported across a variety of different linguistic and cultural elements. Different languages around the world have different equivalent words, varying groupings of words, use borrowed words differently, and have diverse ways of dealing with physical perception. Moreover, the subjects of bilingual speakers, the role of swear words, and cultural elements also lend credibility to the idea that language has some impact on the way that individuals think. Finally, given the fact that both linguistic vocabulary and grammatical structures affect the ways that a specific individual thinks, this also offers some support to the theory of linguistic determinism.


i Marina, V. (2008). Linguistic Relativity and Its Theoretical and Practical Value at the Time of Globalization. Santalka, 16(2), 57-66. doi:10.3846/1822-430x.2008.16.2.57-66.

ii Ibid.

iii Ibid.

iv Ibid.

v Ibid.

vi Ibid.

vii Ibid.

viii Ibid.

ix Ibid.

x Masharov, M., & Fischer, M. H. (2006). Linguistic Relativity: Does Language Help or Hinder Perception? Current Biology, 16(8). doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.03.039.

xi Athanasopoulos, P., Damjanovic, L., Krajciova, A., & Sasaki, M. (2010). Representation of colour concepts in bilingual cognition: The case of Japanese blues. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 14(01), 9-17. doi:10.1017/s1366728909990046.

xii Ibid.

xiii Ibid.

xiv Ibid.

xv Ibid.

xvi Bowers, J. S., & Pleydell-Pearce, C. W. (2011). Swearing, Euphemisms, and Linguistic Relativity. PLoS ONE, 6(7). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022341.

xvii Ibid.

xviii Ibid.

xix Ibid.

xx Sharifian, F. (2017). Cultural Linguistics and linguistic relativity. Language Sciences, 59, 83-92. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2016.06.002.

xxi Ibid.

xxii Ibid.

xxiii Ibid.

xxiv Brown, R. W. (1957). Linguistic determinism and the part of speech. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 55(1), 1-5. doi:10.1037/h0041199.

xv Ibid.