Questioning the Validity of Linguistic Relativism

In a pair of essays that each examines the concepts of Linguistic relativism and linguistic determinism, each comes to different conclusions. In the first essay, authors John J. Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson conclude that the earliest arguments for linguistic determinism and relativism may not be entirely supportable, but that there is some evidence that they do exist to some degree. Author Steve Pinker takes an opposing view, asserting that the concepts of linguistic determinism and relativism simply are not supportable by facts and evidence. Each essay makes a strong case in support of its position, and in the end it seems that the truth may lie somewhere in the middle.

Linguistic determinism takes the view that the way that people think is shaped by their language. Different cultures have different languages; this conclusion is obviously correct. The argument in favor of linguistic determinism holds that these different languages shape how those who speak them see and talk about the world. In order to discuss a particular idea, the language must have words to associate with that idea. Languages offer different categories and terminologies to describe reality, and these words “determine” how their users think. In linguistic relativism, the differences between languages means that those who speak different languages must therefore think differently. The strong form of the argument says that language determines how we think; the weaker form says that we think differently based on differences in language.

Proponents of linguistic relativism assert that there are strong connections between language, thought, and culture (Gumperz and Levinson, 1996, p193). Language is a component of culture, and it is also the construction material for our ability to think. This has been an area of interest for anthropologists and other researchers, and many have claimed that different cultures have different worldviews because of the phenomenon of linguistic relativism. Gumperz and Levinson acknowledge that modern research into how humans think has developed well beyond the point where it was when ideas about linguistic relativism and determinism were first developed (p193), but they do assert that there is some evidence for the effect these theories have on the way we think, and differences in the way speakers of different languages think.

Pinker completely rejects this idea, noting that the relatively recent development of cognitive science has given us a better understanding of how the brain works, and has shown that the functions of the human brain are largely universal (1996, p204). After rejecting the concepts of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism based on the advances in the study of the brain, Pinker then goes on to debunk much of the evidence supporters of those ideas claimed to have found. Two of the most prominent theorists in this area were Benjamin Lee Whorf, a proponent of the idea that language shapes thought, and Edward Sapir, who asserted that the differences in languages meant that speakers of different languages actually thought in different ways. Pinker examines the actual linguistic evidence offered by Sapir and Whorf, and asserts that much of it was simply incorrect; in other words, many of the differences that it was claimed existed between languages did not, in fact, exist (pp205, 206).

Pinker goes on to debunk earlier ideas that language and thought were virtually interchangeable. According to Pinker, modern cognitive science disproves such a notion, and seems to be saying that language may be the way we express our thoughts, but that it is not the same thing as thoughts. Pinker says that we “do not think in English or Chinese or Apache,” but that instead we “think in a language of thought,” which he calls “mentalese” (p212).  It may be fair to say that each essay makes some points well, but neither completely negates the other. Even if humans all do share a common “mentalese,” it can still be difficult for speakers of different languages to communicate with each other. Cultural differences may also mean that different cultures see the world differently, but these differences are generally superficial, and may have more to do with what a particular culture values or emphasizes.

Overall, Pinker makes the stringer case. As has been the case throughout history, explanations about natural phenomena, biological processes, and cultural and social development have always been discussed in the context of their times. Linguistic relativism and linguistic determinism were theoretical constructs developed at a time when anthropological studies were exploding, and anthropologists sought to apply their viewpoints and perspectives on a variety of phenomena and processes. More recently, however, researchers have expanded the field of cognitive sciences, giving us our best glimpses so far into how the brain works. It is this field that tells us that while we may have some significant cultural and social differences, these disparities are underpinned by cognitive processes that are universal among the members of the human species.


Gumperz, J. J. and Levinson, S. C. (1996).  Linguistic Relativity Re-Examined.  Language thinking, and reality.  From Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, pp. 192 – 202, Cambridge University Press.  Reprinted by Permission.

Pinker, S. (1994).  Mentalese.  From The Language Instinct:  How the Mind Creates Language.pp. 45 – 57 and 69 – 73. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.