In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Linguistic Relativity

  • Introduction
  • Overviews of the Field
  • Critiques of Linguistic Relativity
  • Rereadings and Defenses of Linguistic Relativity
  • Language and Worldview
  • European Parallels
  • Trends in Linguistics since the Late 20th Century
  • Social Readings of Linguistic Relativity
  • Poetics and Translation

Anthropology Linguistic Relativity
John Leavitt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0150


A principle of linguistic relativity was proposed by the American linguists Edward Sapir (b. 1884–d. 1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (b. 1897–d. 1941) in the 1920s and 1930s, largely on the basis of their own research and on the methods and findings of Sapir’s teacher Franz Boas (b. 1858–d. 1942). The linguistic relativity principle proposes that the specific characteristics of the language(s) spoken by an individual or a group are likely to become habitual for the speaker and thus provide a path of least resistance for conceptualization and potentially for action. These characteristics, which differ in different ways from language to language, must, then, be taken into account in any work that involves languages and cultures other than the author’s own—and indeed can be made conscious (nonhabitual) for the author’s own. While it is uncontroversial to recognize the reality of language differences in sound in the form of distinctive accents, the linguistic relativity principle holds that such differences are equally real on the level of lexicon and, especially, of grammatical categories. The way that lexical items divide experience, or the way that a grammatical category such as tense or number (in modern Western European languages), shape, or source of knowledge (in some non-Western languages) orients the speaker’s attention toward some kinds of information rather than others, may have effects on ideas or perceptions or the construction of situations: this means that what are often called “worldviews” can be expected to differ among languages. Above all, we cannot assume the absence of such differences. This kind of a view challenges some prevailing modern assumptions. Since René Descartes and John Locke, the most important schools of Western philosophy and psychology have based themselves on the universality of human thought (rationalism), the universality of human experience of the world (empiricism), or both.

Overviews of the Field

The very idea that differences among languages might matter for world construction, as formulated in the 1920s and 1930s, or indeed for cognitive processes, as came to be proposed from the 1950s onward, was in conflict with universalistic cognitive science and the innatist linguistics of Noam Chomsky, beginning to become respectable again only from the 1990s onward. The overviews that are suggested in this section come from this most recent period. A 1991 conference on linguistic relativity (published as Gumperz and Levinson 1996) brought much wider attention to the question than it had enjoyed hitherto. The year 1992 saw an important overview paper (Hill and Mannheim 1992) and the publication of Lucy 1992a, a rereading of Sapir’s and Whorf’s work. Pütz and Verspoor 2000 offers a range of empirical studies on the relationship between language and everyday thought. Lucy 1997b, O’Neill 2013, and Casasanto 2015 give overviews of the field at two different points in its development. More specifically oriented overviews will be found in Harrison 2007, Evans 2010, and Leavitt 2011: K. David Harrison and Nicholas Evans stress the implications of speaking a particular language as part of an argument for language preservation; John Leavitt takes a historical tack, seeking to trace the main debates in the field since the 16th century.

  • Casasanto, Daniel. 2015. Linguistic relativity. In The Routledge handbook of semantics. Edited by Nick Riemer, 158–174. Routledge Handbooks in Linguistics. New York: Routledge.

    Casasanto is a psychologist, and his overview stresses cognitive work in the field (see Language and Cognition and its subsections). See also his article in Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology: “Whorfian Hypothesis.”

  • Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Dying words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Language Library. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Evans is a linguist who works primarily on Australian languages, many of which are in critical condition. Like Harrison’s book cited in this section, this is focused centrally on the loss of languages and of linguistic diversity, but in covering this topic Evans gives an excellent overview of some of the key questions of linguistic relativity.

  • Gumperz, John J., and Stephen C. Levinson, eds. 1996. Rethinking linguistic relativity. Papers presented at a conference, Werner-Gren Symposium 112, held in May 1991 in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language 17. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Based on a 1991 conference, this is the first major collection marking the renewal of the field in the 1990s.

  • Harrison, K. David. 2007. When languages die: The extinction of the world’s languages and the erosion of human knowledge. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195181920.001.0001

    Harrison is a specialist on endangered languages. This is a general introduction to the problem, with a great deal of material exemplifying linguistic diversity and linguistic relativity.

  • Hill, Jane H., and Bruce Mannheim. 1992. Language and world view. Annual Review of Anthropology 21:381–406.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    A brief but thorough overview of work as of the early 1990s.

  • Leavitt, John. 2011. Linguistic relativities: Language diversity and modern thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A history of debates over the importance of linguistic diversity in the modern West. Topics include the Renaissance fascination for language diversity; the crystallization of views from the 17th century, with rationalists judging languages on the basis of their fidelity to the “natural” order of reason, empiricists reforming language to match the external world, and romantics extolling the uniqueness of each language; the lack of interest for languages in evolutionist anthropology, and its replacement in the center of concern by Franz Boas and his pupils; and the turn away from language specifics in the cognitive revolution and their return since the mid-1990s.

  • Lucy, John A. 1992a. Language diversity and thought: A reformulation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language 12. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620843

    Lucy, who was trained in psychology, linguistics, and anthropology, offered the first major rereading of the work of Edward Sapir, Benjamin Whorf, and their critics in many years. The publication of this book and its companion volume (Lucy 1992, cited under Number) served to bring questions of linguistic relativity back into the purview of cognitive science.

  • Lucy, John A. 1997b. Linguistic relativity. Annual Review of Anthropology 26:291–312.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.26.1.291

    Overview of the field from five years after Lucy 1992a and Lucy 1992 (the latter cited under Language and Cognition: Number) and from a more strictly cognitive point of view than that of Hill and Mannheim 1992.

  • O’Neill, Sean. 2013. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and neo-Whorfianism. In Theory in social and cultural anthropology: An encyclopedia. Edited by R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, 745–748. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    Early-21st-century overview of the field by a linguistic anthropologist.

  • Pütz, Martin, and Marjolijn H. Verspoor, eds. 2000. Explorations in linguistic relativity. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science, Series IV: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 199. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Collection of papers, largely by European authors, marking the revival of active research in the field.

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