Does language shape how we think? Linguistic relativity


Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view, or otherwise influences their cognitive processes. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined to include two versions:

Strong version: that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories
Weak version: that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour.


What Makes Something A ‘New’ Language?

If you listened to All Things Considered last week, or happened to glance at The New York Times science section, you might have learned about a new language — Warlpiri rampaku or “Light Warlpiri” — created in a remote village in Northern Australia and documented by University of Michigan linguist Carmel O’Shannessy.

The language combines elements of English, Warlpiri (an aboriginal language spoken in several Australian villages) and Kriol (an English-based creole also spoken beyond the village), but emerged as a “mother tongue” among recent generations of village children. Today, most of the 350-or-so native speakers are under 35 and speak Light Warlpiri, in addition to other local languages.

For linguists, Light Warlpiri provides a unique opportunity to study the creation of a new language — one that doesn’t fit the usual linguistic categories of “dialect,” “pidgin” or “creole.”



But more generally, the recognition of a new language is a good reminder that language is a constantly evolving cultural creation. Like biological species, languages change over time and sometimes diverge, resulting in the formation of new dialects or even new languages. And as in biology, where the question of what constitutes a “new” or different species can be somewhat vexed, we might ask: what makes something a “new” or different language? How much change is enough change for something to be a new language and not a minor variant on the original?

Within biology, one approach to differentiating species relies on the capacity to interbreed to produce fertile offspring: if members of two groups of organisms can do so, they’ll typically be classified as belonging to the same species. Is there an analogous criterion for differentiating languages within linguistics?

I posed this question to Johanna Nichols, an emeritus professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, who shared the following formula:

The gold standard criterion is mutual intelligibility. If a speaker of only one of them hears the other, can they understand? (and vice versa). If so they are the same language; if not, not. The criterion looks for mutual intelligibility without prior learning of the other variety.

Unfortunately, this simple test for “sameness” quickly runs into problems. For example, Nichols points out that the mutual intelligibility test would be difficult to apply to the case of Light Warlpiri versus Warlpiri, as most speakers of the former have had considerable exposure to the latter.

Andrew Garrett, also a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, identified some additional challenges:

Whether you can understand another speech variety or not depends a lot on your experience and motivation in the borderline cases; for example, there are dialects of English I sometimes cannot understand, but on the other hand Spanish and Italian speakers can often understand one another. And there are continua of dialects where each one is comprehensible to its neighbor, but dialects that are far apart are quite different, and mutually incomprehensible … . Because the dialect vs. language distinction is somewhat arbitrary, linguists usually avoid having to decide in difficult cases.

It turns out that differentiating biological species isn’t so simple, either. In fact, many scientists and scholars have moved away from interbreeding as a good test for species identity. I asked Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science and author of Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection, about contemporary trends in defining biological species. Beyond a currently-popular “phylogenetic” view of species, which defines species in terms of their role in the total “tree of life,” Godfrey-Smith noted:

Another idea that has been gaining ground … is that the whole idea of dividing up the living world into species is pretty artificial. Some people think species are a lot less real, as units, than had been supposed.

Interestingly, both Garrett (writing about languages) and Godfrey-Smith (writing about species) raise the possibility that these basic units of study are arbitrary or artificial. There may not be a clear criterion for what makes two people speakers of the same or different languages, or two organisms members of the same or different species — at least for borderline cases.

So why do we impose categories like languages and species on collections of sounds and organisms?

Light Warlpiri likely arose from a generation of children hearing multiple languages, trying to make sense of them, and trying to communicate with each other in some sensible and systematic way. The words and concepts that each of us use to organize the world go through a similar process: they’re shaped by human minds and the challenges of communication.

People like neat categories when describing the biological world, and recent research in psychology reveals that theories of change involving discrete steps or stages are found more orderly and predictable than those that rely on one or more dimensions of change, without any clean breaks. It’s also easier to communicate when you don’t have to use a different word for every organism you encounter, or for every speaker’s version of every language. In other words, the demands of intelligibility and communicability impose real constraints on the shape and content of scientific theories.

So in the end, the way we carve up languages and species may reflect as much about the structure of the human mind as the structure of the natural world.


Social Identity

Language is more than just words. It’s a powerful social behavior that speaks volumes about who we are, where we come from and how we relate. Walt Wolfram explains how the field of sociolinguistics has taken on new significance as a means of understanding our world.

Language is one of the most powerful emblems of social behavior. In the normal transfer of information through language, we use language to send vital social messages about who we are, where we come from, and who we associate with. It is often shocking to realize how extensively we may judge a person’s background, character, and intentions based simply upon the person’s language, dialect, or, in some instances, even the choice of a single word.

Given the social role of language, it stands to reason that one strand of language study should concentrate on the role of language in society.

Sociolinguistics has become an increasingly important and popular field of study, as certain cultures around the world expand their communication base and intergroup and interpersonal relations take on escalating significance.

Language use represents the fundamentals of social behavior and human interaction

The basic notion underlying sociolinguistics is quite simple: Language use symbolically represents fundamental dimensions of social behavior and human interaction. The notion is simple, but the ways in which language reflects behavior can often be complex and subtle. Furthermore, the relationship between language and society affects a wide range of encounters–from broadly based international relations to narrowly defined interpersonal relationships.

For example, sociolinguists might investigate language attitudes among large populations on a national level, such as those exhibited in the US with respect to the English-only amendment–the legislative proposal to make English the ‘official’ language of the US. Similarly, we might study the status of French and English in Canada or the status of national and vernacular languages in the developing nations of the world as symbols of fundamental social relations among cultures and nationalities. In considering language as a social institution, sociolinguists often use sociological techniques involving data from questionnaires and summary statistical data, along with information from direct observation.

A slightly different concern with language and society focuses more closely on the effect of particular kinds of social situations on language structure. For example,language contact studies focus on the origin and the linguistic composition of pidgin and creole languages. These special language varieties arise when speakers from mutually unintelligible language groups need a common language for communication. Throughout the world, there are many sociohistorical situations that have resulted in these specialized language situations–in the Caribbean, Africa, South America, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In examining language contact situations, it is also possible to examine not only the details of a particular language but also the social and linguistic details that show how bilingual speakers use each language and switch between them.

Another approach to language and society focuses on the situations and uses of language as an activity in its own right. The study of language in its social context tells us quite a bit about how we organize our social relationships within a particular community. Addressing a person as ‘Mrs.’, ‘Ms.’, or by a first name is not really about simple vocabulary choice but about the relationship and social position of the speaker and addressee. Similarly, the use of sentence alternatives such as Pass the salt, Would you mind passing the salt, or I think this food could use a little salt is not a matter of simple sentence structure; the choice involves cultural values and norms of politeness, deference, and status.

In approaching language as a social activity, it is possible to focus on discovering the specific patterns or social rules for conducting conversation and discourse. We may, for example, describe the rules for opening and closing a conversation, how to take conversational turns, or how to tell a story or joke.

It is also possible to examine how people manage their language in relation to their cultural backgrounds and their goals of interaction. Sociolinguists might investigate questions such as how mixed-gender conversations differ from single-gender conversations, how differential power relations manifest themselves in language forms, how caregivers let children know the ways in which language should be used, or how language change occurs and spreads to communities. To answer these questions related to language as social activity, sociolinguists often use ethnographic methods. That is, they attempt to gain an understanding of the values and viewpoints of a community in order to explain the behaviors and attitudes of its members.

Sociolinguistics thus offers a unique opportunity to bring together theory, description, and application in the study of language

 Two trends have characterized the development of sociolinguistics over the past several decades. First, the rise of particular specializations within this field has coincided with the emergence of more broadly based social and political issues. Thus, the focus on themes such as language and nationalism, language and ethnicity, and language and gender has corresponded with the rise of related issues in society at large. Second, specialists who examine the role of language and society have become more and more interested in applying the results of their studies to the broadly based social, educational, and political problems that probably gave rise to their emergence as sociolinguistic themes to begin with. Sociolinguistics thus offers a unique opportunity to bring together theory, description, and application in the study of language.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • The Center for Applied Linguistics The Washington, D.C. based organization serves as resource for understanding language and culture.
  • Chaika, Elaine. Language: The Social Mirror. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1994.
  • Coulmas, Florian, ed. The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
  • Macaulay, Ronald K. S. The Social Art: Language and Its Uses. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Trudgill, Peter. Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald. An introduction to sociolinguistics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992.
  • Wolfram, Walt. Dialects and American English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991. (reissued by Basil Blackwell in 1998 as American English: Dialects and variation).

Walt Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University, where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. He has pioneered research on social and ethnic dialects since the 1960s, publishing 16 books and more than 250 articles on language varieties such as African American English, Latino English, Appalachian English, and Southern Vernacular English. Wolfram is deeply involved in the application of sociolinguistic information and the dissemination of knowledge about dialects to the public. In this connection, he has been involved in the production of TV documentaries, museum exhibits, and other community-based dialect awareness initiatives; he also served as primary linguistic consultant for the Children’s Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street. He has served as President of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Dialect Society, and the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics.