Linguistic Determinism

Linguistic determinism is the idea that language shapes thought.  There have been myriad arguments for and against this claim.

The main proponent of linguistic determinism was Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist who (like me) developed an interest in linguistics later in life. He graduated from MIT with a degree in chemical engineering; later on he studied Linguistics at Yale, working with his mentor, Edward Sapir. The idea of linguistic determinism is often called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. They believed that language has such a strong influence on thought that it determines your culture – your thoughts and behaviors. Whorf passed away in 1941 at age 44, and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis fell out of favor for a while. Interest was rekindled in the 1980s through the present day.

A major challenger of linguistic determinism was Steven Pinker, a contemporary linguist. Pinker is actually a cognitive scientist, but his main focus is language acquisition. He believes that language and thought are independent. He says that humans don’t even think in language; we think in something called “mentalese“, a kind of meta-language that is universal to all people. He says we are all born with and retain the same cognitive abilities; language has no ability to mold our thoughts.

Both of these positions are too extreme.  We can’t say for sure that language determines thought; we can’t say that it has no impact.  A better way of looking at it is this: if language keeps you from practicing thinking about something, then it succeeds in affecting the way you think.  I’ll be writing more on this topic sometime soon, and giving some examples that I hope will illustrate what this hypothesis would mean.

So far, which side are you on? Do you think that language determines thought, or are they independent?

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Peggy Snyder #

    Nice blog. I do think that we are born thinking in mentalese because we haven’t acquired language yet. And I imagine there are hypotheses in the child development field about when humans typically switch over to thinking in words. Something else to consider, when we are in the midst of very strong emotions, I think we may switch back to mentalese.

  2. 2

    ohhhh i studied this in one of my classes all those years ago. i give you props – you seem to understand this a lot better than i, but i think language and thought go hand in hand. call it simplistic, but without words, we would only have thoughts and no way to express them in a shared speaking language. language plays such an integral part in how we form thoughts, so if that makes any sense, they are definitely co-dependent.

    love the new blog 🙂

  3. Gelaw A. Yohannes #

    I think they are inseparable. What does Language mean? Is it only the form what we utter? If it is not and includes the intuitive knoledge of language too, we think through language. We can’t have an idea about the thing we don’t know its name. Just when we exprience an idea (signified)we hand in hand familiarize about its form (signifier).

  4. 4

    I think we speak and therefore we are.

    See website above for detailed argument

  5. 5

    I definitely think that language shapes thought, though that is not the only thing that shapes thoughts. Sensory perception must be the genesis of thought and memory, but language, after a while, becomes like a sixth sense and seems to take over our thoughts for better or worse…

  6. Melby Millirans #

    From what little I understand the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis proposes that it shapes our thought (not dictates) and in turn influences our behavior.
    I said to myself, I will quit smoking over and over, instead of I gotta quit, and did. (?)

  7. Alicia #

    After reading your blog it has made it clearer to me what linguistic determinism is all about. i am currently studying Humanities( study of laanguage), and this has helped me loads with research used for my work. Great job thanks

  8. perpetual Nigeria #

    i agree with sapir whorf hypothesis that language shapes thought because a thing we do no its name we cant think about,as for babies;they think but have dont developed a language yet,that is why they express their thought through crying-frowning-and body movement.

  9. Persian #

    I think we have perception and thought as two different thing. Babies can feel love of their mother but they cannot thing about it, or when we are in an overwhelming situation we react to our feeling without thinking about it. As soon as we are starting to think about it we use language, therefore there is no thought outside it.

  10. 10

    language is independent of thought. thought comes first and language is contrary to it. mere utterance of words without any specific pattern in mind is considered a foolish talk. A complete thought in mind adds life to the uttered words and helps the hearer in understanding everything with the depth and importance of the thought. Language is important for effective communication but it is completely ineffective without thought.
    thank you.

  11. Tawanda Machava #


  12. Isaac Wanyonyi Wafula #

    Considering the diversity of cultures, we can fairly assert that language influences thought by explaining it.However, there are moments when thought lacks a word or phrase to express it. The society then chooses from within its vocabulary that which seems more plausible when applied to express that particular thought. Each language therefore has its own rules of developing its language to express thought. This seems to imply that language does not entirely determine thought but they are depended on each other.

  13. 13

    I more or less agree with Isaac Wanyonyi Waful#,faiza#, and holly the healthy everythingtarian #

    I support non-determinist relativism.

    Language does not determine thought, and thought does not determine language. Instead, they both condition,constrain, and influence each other. In other words, language (the linguistic & semiotic) and thought (the cognitive) are both autonomous systems & processes that are constantly interacting.

    Language is something that happens between us (i.e., we talk and write to each other); it is not just a “handle” on or an “instrument” of thought. On the other hand, cognitive activity is just in the head.

    Language also has a “cognitive” dimension in so far as the signifieds of language can can be correlated to mental concepts. At the same time, cognitive activity will also involve an internalization of language (i.e., inner speech), and thus be correlated to linguistic experience outside the mind. This is an example of how they interact or overlap, but they do NOT determine each other.

    I would put it this way: Just as the cognitive level should not be reduced to the neurological level, and the neurological level should not be reduced to the level of physics, I say that the linguistic (or semiotic) level should not be reduced to the cognitive level (which, unfortunately, happens to be the dominant trend). To put it another way: Does neural activity determine cognitive activity or does cognitive activity determine neural activity?

    For the last 2000 years or so, most theorists (in the West) have said that thought determines language. In the last 200 or so years, other scholars – like Whorf, Sapir & more – started claiming the reverse. I agree with Maggie (above) that both positions are extreme.

    A determinist stance also tends to favor the existence of universals over cultural diversity because it easily ignores the fact that diversity & change are happening at both the semiotic/linguistc level AND the cognitive levels, not just at the one level that supposedly doing the determining.

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