Linguistic determinism

Linguistic determinism is the idea that language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought, as well as thought processes such as categorization, memory, and perception. The term implies that people who speak different languages as their mother tongues have different thought processes.[1]

Linguistic determinism is the strong form of linguistic relativity (popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis), which argues that individuals experience the world based on the structure of the language they habitually use. Guy Deutscher is one example of a linguistic relativist who maintains that language influences worldview.[2]

Friedrich Nietzsche lived before the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was formulated, however, many of his views line up with the assumptions of linguistic determinism. He is credited with the term "Language as a prison".[3] Alfred Korzybski also supports the hypothesis inadvertently through general semantics.[4]

The language that served as the basis of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is Hopi, specifically its notion of time.[5] Later support for determinism comes from Pirahã language, which is known for lacking a numerical system.[6]

Though linguistic determinism played a considerable role historically, it is now discredited among mainstream linguists.[7] Eric Lenneberg, and Roger Brown, as well as Steven Pinker, have provided evidence in opposition to the hypothesis. The idea, however, does continue to play a role in literature and popular media. [8] For example, it appears in George Orwell's 1984, the 2016 movie Arrival, and other science fiction works.


The principle of linguistic relativity (or, in other words, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis) in its strong deterministic form first found its clear expression in writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf.

The term "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” is considered a misnomer by linguists and academics, because Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf never co-authored any works (although they did work together, Sapir being Whorf's mentor), and never stated their ideas in terms of a hypothesis. The distinction between a weak and a strong version of this hypothesis is also a later invention; Sapir and Whorf never set up such a dichotomy, although often in their writings their views of this relativity principle are phrased in stronger or weaker terms.[9][10] The two linguists were nevertheless among the first to formulate the principle of linguistic relativity.

Sapir exercised the idea that language is essential to understanding one's worldview and that difference in language implies a difference in social reality. Though he never directly explored how language affects thought, significant traces of the linguistic relativity principle underlie his perception of language.[11]

Whorf took further and reformulated Sapir's thought in his essay “Science and Linguistics”. His take on linguistic relativity was more radical: in Whorf's view, the relationship between language and culture was a deterministic one and language played a crucial role in the perception of reality. Language is what gives the thought its expression and thus shapes it; in other words, thinking is determined by language. In "Science and Linguistics" Whorf stated that:

"It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language […] is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide. […] We dissect nature along the lines laid down by our native languages.

[…] This fact is very significant for modern science, for it means that no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality […]. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same pictures of the universe, unless the linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated."[12]

According to Whorf, the formulation of ideas and thoughts is not a rational independent process but is determined by particular grammar and vocabulary of the language in which these ideas are expressed. The world around is organized and made sense of through language.

Supporting Arguments


Whorf's conclusion was largely based upon a close examination and extensive study of the Hopi Indian language. During earlier years, Whorf published a number of essays in which he analyzed various linguistic aspects of Hopi. For example, a work called “An American Indian model of the universe” (1936) explores the implications of the Hopi verb system concerning the conception of space and time.

In the course of his research, Whorf noticed that Hopi and some other languages (Hebrew, Aztec, and Maya) were built on a different plan from that of English and many other languages which he called SAE (Standard Average European) languages. He discovered several significant features differentiating Hopi from SAE languages that led him to the idea of linguistic determinism.

For example, Hopi is a ‘timeless’ language, whose verbal system lacks tenses. Its assessment of time is different from SAE linear temporal view of past, present, and future. This varies with each observer:

"The timeless Hopi verb does not distinguish between the present, past and future of the event itself but must always indicate what type of validity the speaker intends the statement to have."[13]

Hopi time is non-dimensional and cannot be counted or measured in a way SAE languages measure it, i.e. the Hopi will not say “I stayed six days,” but “I left on the sixth day.” What is crucial in their perception of time is whether an event can be warranted to have occurred, or to be occurring, or to be expected to occur. Hopi grammatical categories signify view of the world as an ongoing process, where time is not divided into fixed segments so that certain things recur, e.g. minutes, evenings, or days. The linguistic structure of SAE languages, on the other hand, gives its speakers a more fixed, objectified and measurable understanding of time and space, where they distinguish between countable and uncountable objects and view time as a linear sequence of past, present, and future.

Whorf argues that this and numerous other differences imply a different way of thinking. Since thought is expressed and transmitted through language, it follows that a differently structured language must shape thought along its lines, thus influencing perception. Consequently, a Hopi speaker who perceives the world through the medium of his language must see reality through the patterns laid down by its linguistic structure.


Nietzsche famously wrote, "We cease to think if we do not want to do it under linguistic constraints," which was originally translated incorrectly as "We have to cease to think if we refuse to do so in the prison-house of language." The phrase "prison-house of language" came to represent the extreme position regarding linguistic determinism. Although Nietzsche's position was not quite as drastic as the prison-house view, he did believe that language acts as the building blocks of thought, fundamentally shaping and influencing it. This was his explanation as to why cultural differences exist: because the language is different, the thought process is therefore different.[14]

Nietzsche also wrote that there is the "will to power and nothing besides," and this is another way Nietzsche expresses that language is a fixed structure that is responsible for the desires, thoughts, and actions of humans.[15] This represents linguistic determinism, making language the "prison" that minds are therefore trapped in. According to Nietzsche things like table, or rain are incomprehensible without the words being present in language.

Guy Deutscher

Guy Deutscher is a supporter of linguistic relativity, the weaker counterpart of linguistic determinism. Relativity holds that language influences thought, but avoids the "language as a prison" view. In Deutscher's book Through the Language Glass, the chapter Where the Sun Doesn't Rise in the east discusses the language Guugu Yimithirr and how it reinforces linguistic relativity.

Deutscher introduces the Guugu Yimithirr language, where they describe everything geocentrically based on its cardinal direction (the chair is to the East) rather than egocentrically (the chair is to your right). It is clear how this system of expressing position and location influenced the Guugu Ymithirr's conceptualization of space. Their description of objects' locations, within photos or on television, would change based on the rotation of the media because they described things using cardinal directions. For example, if there was a photograph with a tree on the left side of the photo and a girl on the right side, the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr would describe the tree as West of the girl. If the photo was then rotated 90 degrees clockwise the tree would now be described as North of the girl.

The implications, as Deutscher sees it, were that the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr have a "perfect pitch" for direction and that their sense of direction is completely non-egocentric. In one experiment, speakers were asked to recall a very recent event and describe it. The people recalled their placement, as well as the placement of important people and objects around them perfectly, even accounting for their position in the retelling. Many years later, the same people were asked to recall that same event, and it was shown that over time, they were still able to accurately recall the directionality of objects and people. Deutscher argues that this example illustrates that geocentric direction is encoded into the memories of Guugu Ymithirr because their language requires it. More broadly, they see the world differently due to their unique conceptualization of space. [16]


Similar to the claims that Hopi prevents its speakers from thinking about time, some linguists allege that the Pirahã language prevents its speakers from thinking about quantity and numbers.[17][18] The speakers of Pirahã are also, for the most part, incapable of math.

Peter Gordon has recently taken an interest in studying the speakers of the Pirahã language. He has conducted many experiments on a small amount of these speakers. Gordon highlights eight experiments involving seven Pirahã speakers. Six of the experiments were all related in that the speakers were instructed to match groups of items to the correct number displayed elsewhere. The other two experiments had them recall how many items had been placed into a container, and lastly differentiate between various containers by the number of symbols that were pictured on the outside. Gordon found that the speakers of Pirahã could distinguish between the numbers one, two, and three relatively accurately, but any quantity larger than that was essentially indistinguishable to them. He also found the larger the number involved, the worse the performance. Gordon concluded that speakers of Pirahã are restricted to thinking about numbers through symbols or other representations. These speakers think of things as small, larger, or many.[19] The speakers showed no ability to learn numbers, even after being taught in the Portuguese language for eight months, not one individual could count to ten.[20]

Daniel Everett found that the Pirahã language also lacks recursion or nesting which was previously thought to be a feature of all languages. This opens up the possibility that the thoughts of the speakers are influenced by their language in other ways as well. Although whether or not Pirahã lacks recursion is a topic of intense debate.[21]

General Semantics

General Semantics was a therapy program created by Alfred Korzybski for the purpose of altering behavior. It has been regarded as a reliable method and produced effective results concerning altering behavior.

Language acts as the basis for the behavioral therapy; The methods used are based on the idea that language influences human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Korzybski's program assumes that people misappropriate language, creating damaging effects. By clarifying language, participants create a more accurate mental representation, which in turn creates an emotional response.

As such, the general idea behind general semantics is to alter your language to change the feelings created within the mind-space, so as to elicit the desired response. According to Korzybski, the mind consists of different silent and verbal levels. On the nonverbal levels, there exists feelings, thought, and nervous system responses, and on the verbal level there are language systems. He instructs people to understand any given word as just a lexical representation and nothing more and to react accordingly. This is to avoid misappropriation of thoughts and feelings attached to any one thing. Because this program has been shown to produce effective results, this has large implications that language determines thought, supporting linguistic determinism. [22]

Additional Support

Other studies supporting the principle of linguistic determinism have shown that people find it easier to recognize and remember shades of colors for which they have a specific name.[23] For example, there are two words in Russian for different shades of blue, and Russian-speakers are faster at discriminating between the shades than are English-speakers.[24]

Linguistic determinism can also be evident in situations where the means of drawing attention to a certain aspect of an experience is language. For example, in French, Spanish or Russian there are two ways to address a person because those languages have two second person pronouns – singular and plural. The choice of pronoun depends on the relationship between the two people (formal or informal) and the degree of familiarity between them. In this respect, the speaker of any of those languages is always thinking about the relationship when addressing another person and therefore unable to separate those two processes.[25]


Eric Lenneberg and Roger Brown (1954)

Psycholinguists Eric Lenneberg and Roger Brown were among the first to refute Whorf's ideas of linguistic determinism. They identify Whorf's major ideas as a) the world is experienced differently by speakers of different languages and b) language is causally linked to these cognitive differences[26]. They explore the two types of evidence Whorf uses to argue for the existence of cognitive differences between linguistic communities: lexical differences and structural differences.[26]

Lexical differences

Lenneberg and Brown analyze the example of Eskimo snow terms. They claim that Eskimo's three distinct terms for what English speakers would simply call "snow" does not indicate that English speakers cannot perceive these differences, but rather that they just do not label them. They go on to point out that, on occasion, speakers of English do classify different types of snow (i.e. "good-packing snow" and "bad-packing snow") but do so with phrases instead of a single lexical item. They conclude that English speakers' and Eskimo speakers' worldviews cannot differ in this way, given that both groups are able to discriminate between different types of snow.[26]

Structural differences

To refute Whorf's notion that structural categories correspond to symbolic categories, Lenneberg and Brown point out that structural categories rarely have consistent meanings. When they do, these meanings are not necessarily evident to speakers, as the case of grammatical gender in French illustrates. All French words with feminine gender do not reflect feminine qualities, nor do they share any common attributes. Lenneberg and Brown conclude that the existence of structural classes alone cannot be interpreted as reflective of differences in cognition.[26]


Lenneberg and Brown ultimately conclude that the causal relationship between linguistic differences and cognitive differences cannot be concluded based on the evidence Whorf provides, which is solely linguistic in nature. They do, however, appear to find the proposition worthy of study, and pursue the study of color terms in order to supplement linguistic evidence with psychological data. [26]

Steven Pinker

Another outspoken critic of linguistic determinism is linguist Steven Pinker, known for his alignment with Chomsky's universalist ideas. In his book, The Language Instinct, Pinker dismisses linguistic determinism as a "conventional absurdity," instead proposing a universal language of thought - termed Mentalese.[7] He echoes Lenneberg and Brown's criticism that Whorf relied too heavily on linguistic data alone to draw conclusions regarding the relationship between language and thought.

Pinker also dismisses the idea that Eskimo has more words for snow than English as simply untrue, calling it the "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," perpetuated and exaggerated by textbooks and popular books. As for the color terminology debate, he argues that although different languages label colors differently, this variation in language cannot change human's biological process of color perception; he also points out that there are universal tendencies in the color labels that languages possess (i.e. if a language has two terms, they will be for white and black; with three terms, add red; with four, add either yellow or green). Pinker's final criticism of linguistic determinism is with regard to the Hopi concept of time: he asserts that Whorf was completely mistaken in his characterization of the Hopi as having no concept of time and that the Hopi do in fact have tense, units of time, temporal metaphors, and a complex system of time-keeping.

Pinker concludes that linguistic determinism derives from the tendency to equate thought with language, but evidence from cognitive science now illustrates that thought precedes language. In his eyes, humans think not in individual languages, but in a shared language of thought. In turn, knowledge of a particular language constitutes the ability to translate this Mentalese into a string of words for the sake of communication.[7]

Additional Criticism

Linguistic determinism has been widely criticized for its absolutism and refuted by linguists. For instance, Michael Frank et al. continued Daniel Everett's research and ran further experiments on the Pirahã published in "Numbers as a cognitive technology," and found that Everett was wrong, the Pirahã did not have words for "one," or "two," but instead had words for "small," "somewhat larger," and "many."

For example, one may perceive different colors even while missing a particular word for each shade, like New Guinea aborigines can distinguish between the colors green and blue even though they have only one lexical entry to describe both colors.[27] In communities where language does not exist to describe color, it does not mean the concept is void – rather the community may have a description or unique phrase to determine the concept. Everett describes his research into the Pirahã tribe who use language to describe color concepts in a different way to English speakers: “[…] each word for color in Pirahã was actually a phrase. For example, biísai did not mean simply ‘red’. It was a phrase that meant ‘it is like blood’.” [28]

Thus, in its strong version ‘Whorfian hypothesis’ of linguistic determination of cognition has been widely refuted. In its weaker form, however, the proposal that language influences thinking has frequently been discussed and studied.[29]

In Literature and Media

George Orwell's 1984: Newspeak

In Orwell's famous dystopian novel, 1984, the fictional language of Newspeak provides a strong example of linguistic determinism. The restricted vocabulary and grammar make it impossible to speak or even think of rebelling against the totalitarian government, instead aligning its speakers with the ideology of Ingsoc.[30] Newspeak highlights the deterministic proposition that if a language does not have a means to express certain ideas, its speakers cannot conceptualize them. Orwell devotes the Appendix to a description of Newspeak and its grammar:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.[30]

It is worth noting that the main character Winston Smith, and others, were able to both conceive and speak of rebellion, despite the influences of Newspeak. 1984 does, however, take place before the full imposition of Newspeak; characters spoke both a combination of Newspeak and Oldspeak (standard English), which may have allowed for heretical thought and action.

Arrival (2016)

Based on the short story "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, the science-fiction movie Arrival rests on the notion of linguistic determinism. It follows linguist Louise Banks as she is recruited to decipher the messages of extraterrestrial visitors to Earth. As she learns their language of complex circular symbols, she begins to see flashes of her daughter's life and death. It later becomes evident that these flash back-like visions are glimpses into her future. By acquiring the alien language and its nonlinear notion of time, Banks is able to see both past and future. The award-winning movie illustrates an example of the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis since it presupposes that language determines thought. Learning an extraterrestrial language affected Banks's worldview so drastically that it completely transformed her perception of time.[31]

Experimental languages in Science Fiction

The possibility of linguistic determinism has been explored by a variety of authors, mostly in science fiction. There exist some languages, like Loglan, Ithkuil and Toki Pona for instance, which have been constructed for the purpose of testing the assumption. However, no formal tests appear to have been done.

Role in literary theory

Linguistic determinism is a partial assumption behind developments in rhetoric and literary theory.[32] For example, French philosopher Jacques Derrida dissected the terms of "paradigmatic" hierarchies (in language structures, some words exist only with antonyms, such as light/dark, and others exist only with relation to other terms, such as father/son and mother/daughter; Derrida targeted the latter). He believed that if one breaks apart the hidden hierarchies in language terms, one can open up a "lacuna" in understanding, an "aporia," and free the mind of the reader/critic.[33] Similarly, Michel Foucault's New Historicism theory posits that there is a quasi-linguistic structure present in any age, a metaphor around which all things that can be understood are organized. This "episteme" determines the questions that people can ask and the answers they can receive. The episteme changes historically: as material conditions change, so the mental tropes change, and vice versa. When ages move into new epistemes, the science, religion, and art of the past age look absurd.[34] Some Neo-Marxist historians have similarly looked at culture as permanently encoded in a language that changes with the material conditions. As the environment changes, so too do the language constructs.

See also



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