In an earlier entry I referred to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that the way we see and think about the world is influenced (in the moderate version) or determined (in the strong version) by the language we speak. A short article by Daniel Chandler summarizes thus:

Whilst few linguists would accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its ‘strong’, extreme or deterministic form, many now accept a ‘weak’, more moderate, or limited Whorfianism, namely that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced by the kind of language we use. Moderate Whorfianism differs from extreme Whorfianism in these ways:

* the emphasis is on the potential for thinking to be ‘influenced’ rather than unavoidably ‘determined’ by language;
* it is a two-way process, so that ‘the kind of language we use’ is also influenced by ‘the way we see the world’;
* any influence is ascribed not to ‘Language’ as such or to one language compared with another, but to the use within a language of one variety rather than another (typically a sociolect – the language used primarily by members of a particular social group);
* emphasis is given to the social context of language use rather than to purely linguistic considerations, such as the social pressure in particular contexts to use language in one way rather than another.

(Other discussions here and here, here is a collection of old LinguistList posts on the topic [1991-99], and Stavros has a recent entry discussing it in relation to Korean hierarchical forms of language.)

I have no new insights to offer regarding the hypothesis itself (though I will say that the Chomsky-Pinker outright dismissal of it is based on their assumption of the underlying identity of all languages, which I consider absurd.) I would, however, like to mention an experiment I carried out in my college years, when I was too ignorant to realize I had neither the experience nor the resources to do a good job of it. I copied a number of illustrations of simple scenes, simple enough that there were only a few elements to describe (a woman getting water from a well, a man going through a door, that kind of thing). I then showed the series to native speakers of as many different languages as I could find on my (fortunately very diverse) campus and asked them to write one-sentence descriptions in their native languages. My hope was to show skewing of description that would correlate with the grammatical structures of their languages; as I recall, the results were suggestive but not conclusive (and how could they have been, given that I was wet behind the ears and stumbling around in the dark?). But it seems to me that a similar experiment, done by people who knew what they were doing, could provide some valuable insight, more valuable than the simple asseverations that pass for argument at present. If anyone knows of work along those lines, please let me know. And if anybody thinks I’m talking through my hat, they’re probably right. All comments are welcome.


  1. My hope was to show skewing of description that would correlate with the grammatical structures of their languages
    Can you be a little more specific? Perhaps by way of an example of such a correlation (however silly/simplistic) as you expected to see it?

  2. Thanks for the followup, LH.

  3. Dammit, Anatoly, I was hoping nobody would ask that. Hey, it was over 30 years ago and I was preoccupied with girls and protest, OK? As best I remember, I was expecting that languages with a complex verbal system would describe the pictures in terms of actions, whereas others might give more static/adjectival descriptions. But your imaginings of how it might work are doubtless better than my distant memories of my just-past-teenage ideas.

  4. More recent work of a similar bent does indeed show that speakers of path-centric (aka verb-framed) languages like the Romance languages have trouble with pictures that show someone running down into the basement of a house, because they don’t have a path-centric verb for moving inward and then downward (who would?) Manner-centric (aka satellite-framed) languages cope easily, as I just showed. English has lots of borrowed path-centric verbs from French and Latin as well as its native complement of manner-centric verbs.

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