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

  • Introduction
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Resources
  • Foundational Works
  • Theoretical Perspectives
  • Color
  • Object-Substance
  • Object-Substance and Acquisition
  • Kinds and Categories
  • Grammatical Number
  • Integers
  • Time
  • Theory of Mind
  • Grammatical Gender
  • Emotion

Linguistics Linguistic Relativity
Peggy Li, David Barner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0026


Linguistic relativity, sometimes called the Whorfian hypothesis, posits that properties of language affect the structure and content of thought and thus the way humans perceive reality. A distinction is often made between strong Whorfian views, according to which the categories of thought are determined by language, and weak views, which argue that language influences thought without entirely determining its structure. Each view presupposes that for language to affect thought, the two must in some way be separable. The modern investigation of linguistic relativity began with the contributions of Benjamin Lee Whorf and his mentor, Edward Sapir. Until recently, much experimental work has focused on determining whether any reliable Whorfian effects exist and whether effects truly reflect differences in thought caused by linguistic variation. Many such studies compare speakers of different languages or test subjects at different stages of language acquisition. Other studies explore how language affects cognition by testing prelinguistic infants or nonhuman animals and comparing these groups to children or adults. Significant progress has been made in several domains, including studies of color, number, objects, and space. In many areas, the status of findings is hotly debated.

Edited Collections

Often, leading researchers in the field summarize their newest findings and views in edited collections. These volumes are good places to begin research into the topic of linguistic relativity. The listed volumes arose from papers presented at conferences, symposia, and workshops devoted to the topic. Gumperz and Levinson 1996 arose from a symposium that revived interest in the linguistic relativity hypothesis, leading to a wave of new research on the topic. Highlights of this work are reported in Bowerman and Levinson 2001, Gentner and Goldin-Meadow 2003, and Malt and Wolff 2010.

  • Bowerman, Melissa, and Stephen C. Levinson, eds. 2001. Language acquisition and conceptual development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620669

    This volume brings together research on language acquisition and conceptual development and asks about the relation between them in early childhood.

  • Gentner, Dedre, and Susan Goldin-Meadow, eds. 2003. Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    The volume starts with a collection of perspective papers and then showcases papers that bring data to bear to test claims of linguistic relativity. The papers are delineated on the basis of the types of language effects on thought: language as a tool kit, language as a lens, and language as a category maker.

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

    A collection of papers arising from the “Rethinking Linguistic Relativity” Wenner-Gren Symposium in 1991 that brought about renewed interest in the topic.

  • Malt, Barbara C., and Phillip M. Wolff. 2010. Words and the mind: How words capture human experience. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Researchers across disciplines (linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists) contributed to this collection of papers documenting new advances in language-thought research in various domains (space, emotions, body parts, causation, etc.).

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