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Does Your Language Affect What You Can and Can't Think About?

Updated on February 28, 2017

“Whoever controls words controls the world”

- Deborah Cameron

They say that those who know more vocabulary are smarter. Is this true? Do people with greater vocabularies comprehend more? Do they understand more? Does the command of a language provide an individual more thought? Does the language an individual speaks affect their thought altogether? If this is the case, does it mean there is a superior language? This is a minor example of some of the questions regarding the role language plays in individual’s lives and thought. Whorf a psychologist made known his theory and, since then, the majority of linguists, scientists, and psychologists have argued the falsehood of his sentiments. Yet, studies and theories show, time and again, that there is at least a little truth to Whorf’s claims.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that the language an individual knows shapes the way they think about events in the world around them (Ashcraft & Radvansky, 2010). This means the language each individual knows affects their thought process, how they think, and what they think about. An example of this would be the English concept of “green, an individual can only think about the color green by using the word green. The thought is dictated by the word used in that language.

There are even different degrees of the theory. Strong “Whorfianism” concludes that language controls both thought and action to a large degree. In other words an individual cannot think outside of their language and their language determines what that individual does. Returning to our example of green, an individual under strong “Whorfianism” has only the ability to think about “green” using the word dictated by the language.

The less extreme point of view is known as weak “Whorfianism”. Weak “Whorfianism” states that language influences and shapes thought. This means that individuals can have different concepts of what something is but our label of that thing influences our thought about it. Returning to our example, an individual can picture the color green in their mind and they have label for that color which is “green”. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, at all levels, has caused a lot of clamor among theorists, linguists, and scientists.

Evidence of Studies

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has been heavily debated and many scientists and theorists have undermined its relevance. There is no doubt that the theory is tough to prove. There are, however, psychologists and linguists who have tried to gain a grasp on the effect of language on thought.

Many have done studies to try to determine how much relevance language has on thought. One such study was done in South Africa where schools are taught in English. Most of the students in South Africa have a primary language that is different than English. Prins and Ulijn (1998) desired to know the affects of language and the ability to understand mathematics, especially word problems, in school. In there study the trial students were taught linguistics, not math, to help them improve there understanding of the English language. They found that as the students better understood the English language, they were better able to accomplish their word problems in math. This is a monumental study for an individuals understanding and their ability to speak a language. Based on their results they find the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to be true. They had suggestions to improve the teaching and learning among schools in this unique situation. They first suggest that students should receive mother tongue education, this being the best alternative. They then suggest that mathematic texts should take into consideration cultural differences and linguistics. Through their suggestions, they show their belief that an individual’s depth of thought and understanding is equal to their linguistic ability.

A further study was done by Zhan and Schmitt (1998) on native Chinese speakers and English speakers. Their study researched the affect of classifiers. They found significant differences between Chinese and English speakers. They discovered that the influence on cognition, particularly in cross-cultural context, is consistent with Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Zhan’s and Schmitt’s view focuses on how linguistic forms are represented, how they operate in the mind, and how they affect the concepts and categories that denote objects and relations in the world. They raise a point that grammar related differences influence perceptions of similarity and schematic organization of information in memory. They also suggest that these variables affect judgment. This is another study of language that has found a difference in thought and perception.

In another studyDavies, Sowden, Jerrett, Jerrett, and Corbett (1998) conducted a study on native Setswana speakers and native English speakers. Setswana is unique, in that, the language does not differentiate between the colors blue and green, whereas, English accounts for both colors separately. Davies et al. conducted a triad study, in which, they placed three colors in front of participants and asked them to choose the two that were most similar. They found that there are small but reliable differences between the two samples associated with linguistic differences. They concluded that the universal constraints and color perception may be modulated by small cultural influences, including language. This is further evidence for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, this study being more consistent with weak “Whorfianism”.

Based on the studies, that are highlighted here, it is tough do deny that “Whorfianism” is relevant. These studies show the effect that language has on thought, understanding, and behavior. They show that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is accurate.

Theoretical Point of View

Although studies seem to uphold the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis there are not many theories that account for this hypothesis. Cameron suggests the fact that so many argue against “Whorfianism” must mean what Whorf has said is threatening and revealing. She writes about Whorf’s theory enduring the test of time. Even as people try and dispute it the theory seems to stick around. She claims because of that the theory has relevance even if it is not true.

In further research Matsuda (2001) does a review of H.G. Ying’s work. His review is a critical one. H. G. Ying argues that Kaplan’s theory that culture affects thought is different than Whorf’s hypothesis. Matsuda brings up many of his own points in his argument against H. G. Ying. One of which is when he challenges Ying’s belief that Whorf and Kaplan’s theories are opposites. He suggested that the two theories are just one step removed from each other. He states that Kaplan’s theory is laid out as such: cultural patterns affect language which then affects thought. In his suggestion he qualifies Whorf through Kaplan’s theory and finds a way they relate. Kaplan, in his theory, adds a step suggesting that culture affects language. This is only different from Whorfianism in the fact that Whorf did not mention his culture in his theory. It is evident that there is, in deed, space for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis within others theories.

Kodish (2004), in writing about his theory, believes that the language is connected to the nervous system of an individual. He also thinks that it is intertwined with behavior and consciousness. He claims, “We create our language; our language affects us; we create our language; etc…” His theory is what he calls a spiral feedback mechanism. Kodish’s point of stance is “middle” Whorfianism”. He believes that we can come up with new thoughts, outside of language, but that the language affects everything that we do.

As we can see, from the different theoretical stances, there is room for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis within other theories. The threat that this hypothesis purposes to other theories could account for the strong defiance it faces. There is no doubt that “Whorfianism” has found its place among some theories and has influenced others.


In regards to the fight to have the theory expunged, it is evident, based on all the studies in this paper, “Whorfianism” is accurate. It is time to except that this theory is here to stay. How relevant this hypothesis is will still be determined. Yet, theories need to start accounting for it. Weak “Whorfianism” seems to be the logical position. It needs to be accepted that language does influence our thoughts. Individuals who have learned a second language can attest that there are some things that lose there meaning when translated to another language. This shows that the thought is clearly within that specific language. This does not mean that one language is superior to another, they are just different.

Another point is that the most common way to express thought is through words. Once something is labeled, with a word, it seems to have a direct affect on an individuals thought process, of that thing. The greater ability an individual has to label things seems to relate to a greater understanding. There are other ways to think, which clearly indicates that language is not deterministic of thought. Evidence shows, however, that thought is influenced by language.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that the language you know shapes the way you think about events in the world around you. There is no doubt that “Whorfianism” has found its place among some theories already and influences others as well. The threat the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis purposes to other theories could account for the strong defiance it faces. Based on the studies highlighted in this paper “Whorfianism” is relevant. The studies indicate that language has an effect on thought, understanding, and behavior. They show that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is accurate. As we can see, there is room for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis within other theories. It needs to be accepted that language does influence our thoughts. Weak “Whorfianism” seems to be the logical position for theorists, scientists, linguists, and psychologists to accept.



Ashcraft, M., & Radvansky, G. (2010). Cognition. UpperSaddleRiver: Pearson Education, Inc..

Cameron, D. Linguistic relativity: Benjamin Lee Whorf and the return of repressed. Critical Quarterly, 41(2), 153-156.

Davies, I., Sowden, P., Jerrett, D., Jerrett, T., & Corbett, G. (1998). A Cross-cultural study of English and Setswana speakers on a color triads task: a test of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. British Journal of Psychology, 89, 1-15.

Kodish, B. (2004). What we do with language - what language does with us. ETC, 383-395.

Matsuda, P. (2001). On the origin of contrastive rhetoric: a response to H.G. Ying. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 11(2), 257-260.

Prins, E., & Ulijn, J. (1998). Linguistic and cultural factors in the readability of mathematics texts: the Whorfian hypothesis revisited with evidence from the South African context. Journal of Research in Reading, 21(2), 139-159.

Zhang, S., & Schmitt, B. (1998). Language-dependent classification: the mental representation of classifiers in cognition, memory, and ad evaluations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 4(4), 375-385.


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    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      6 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I’m not sure I agree with Whorf’s theories. As you stated, Whorf’s theory indicates that an individual only has the ability to think about “green” using the word dictated by the language.

      In my opinion, I think that people have the ability to think in term of concepts, or abstract thoughts. Therefore words are not always necessary.

      Something to ponder on… you may have heard the story of the boy who was brought up by wolves. He obviously never learned a language. But the question is, how does he think? See my point?

      I think your explanation of “Weak Whorfianism” may apply to that, if I understood it correctly. An individual can have a concept of an idea. But Whorf still goes as far as to indicate that words place a label on the idea, and that influences our thought about it.

      I enjoyed your Hub as this is a very interesting subject for me that I have been reviewing too. Voted up.

    • K Kiss profile image

      K Kiss 

      6 years ago from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

      Nice read B Stucki. It is a topic on which I ponder upon a lot and tried to put down to writing too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Voted up

    • humagaia profile image

      Charles Fox 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Although English, my native language, is very capable of allowing the communication of thoughts, it is still limited in being able to communicate all thoughts. Reason: the differences in the vocabulary known by the person trying to transfer a thought and the recipient of the communication.

      The fact that "I need a better means of communication" would indicate that:

      1. I have a limiting vocabulary for my needs.

      2. I can think without a means to communicate that thought precisely and effectively.

      Ergo, thought is not limited by the language that I use.

      Thought transfer, however, is limited by the vocabulary of the two participants in the process.

      Utilising a number of languages to communicate a thought may be a possibility, but it clearly requires both parties to possess similar vocabularies in both languages.

    • profile image

      Layla Mo 

      7 years ago

      As an Honors student in Linguistics, I found this article very usefull for my presentation on Linguistic Relativity. I've refered to this article as it a clear insight to Whorfianism

    • B Stucki profile imageAUTHOR

      B Stucki 

      8 years ago

      Thanks Aris!

    • Aris Budianto profile image

      Aris Budianto 

      8 years ago from Lying along the equator Country

      Great articles indeed

    • B Stucki profile imageAUTHOR

      B Stucki 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Nikki D. Felder profile image

      Nikki D. Felder 

      8 years ago from Castle Hayne, N.C.

      I definitely see your knowledge of behavior science here. Well written! Nikki D. Felder

    • Benjimester profile image

      Benji Mester 

      8 years ago from San Diego, California

      That's really fascinating. "An individual’s depth of thought and understanding is equal to their linguistic ability." I've often wondered about this myself. Since most words that describe emotion have no concrete value, but must draw on our own personal experience, can you really know if you're communicating your message accurately? If I use the word passion to describe something, I'm relying on the fact that the listener has indeed felt passionately about something before, in order to really be able to know what I'm talking about. Linguistics really is a fascinating branch of study.

      I I think I agree with strong worfianism. Since many words are based upon experience, the more words you really know, the more experiential wisdom you'd have I guess. Thanks for the very well written hub!


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