Linguistics 110 Linguistic Analysis: Sentences & Dialects
Lecture Number Seventeen
Linguistic Relativity

  1. Linguistic Relativity

    Do linguistic structures affect cognitive structures, the way we think, the way we perceive the world (cf. Von Humboldt, Whorf, Sapir, Berlin & Kay)?

    Do people speaking languages with fewer words for color perceive fewer colors?

    To what extent does cultural context determine language?

    Linguistic relativity is the claim that human behavior and perception is influenced by language.

    Here are some examples:

    1. Do we see different numbers of basic colors depending upon the number of basic color words in the language (Edward Sapir)?

    Basic Color Terms in English, Shona and Bassa
    purple blue green yellow orange red
    Shona cipswuka citema cicena cipswuka
    Bassa hui zza

    1. Does the loss of thou in English indicate that we are more socially democratic than the French, Germans, and Slavs? Or are we more egocentric?

      Language 1stPer 2ndPer
      English I you
      German ich Sie
      Russian ja Vy

    2. Russian voina is derived but mir is not. Does this mean that they are more peace-loving because the word for 'peace' has been in the language longer and is more deeply rooted in Russian-speakers' consciousness?

    3. Does the language we speak color our perception of gender roles?
      1. If people say the following, does it mean that they think less of women than men?
        1. Whoever she is, the secretary here doesn't know her job.
        2. Whoever he is, the manager here doesn't know his job.

        If people use the 'generic' he, does it mean that they are prejudiced against females?
        (OR: If someone uses the 'generic' he, does it mean that he is prejudiced against females?)

      2. What if I refer to men and women as a chairman, postman, workman?
      3. What if I refer to all girls as das/die Madchen in the neuter?
      4. In Russian males and females are generally distinguished by the masculine and feminine genders (but remember: these are, by and large, arbitrary noun classes).

        Masculine Gloss Feminine
        liftr 'elevator operator' liftr-a
        sekretar' 'secretary' sekretar-a
        millioner 'millioner' millioner-a

        But the word for 'secretary' may refer to two kinds of secretaries: the ordinary kind and the kind who heads governmental and party offices. Sekretar-a is used only in the former sense. Does that prejudice Russians in any way?
        What about the fact that almost all Russian nicknames are grammatically feminine? (E.g., Ivan - Vanja, Andrey - Andra

    4. What do you associate these colors with:
      1. White as . . . . . . . . . . . . ? Are these nice, clean, pleasant things?
      2. Black as . . . . . . . . . . . . . ? Are these nice, clean, pleasant things?
      If we associate white with purity (wedding dress, pure as the driven snow), pleasantness (white Christmas, White House), cleanliness, morality (white lie) and black with evil (black lie, black heart, black day, black deed, black eye), (black) magic, (white wine and _____ wine?--why not black wine or at least dark wine?)--does it mean that we must treat white men and women correspondingly different from black men and women?

  1. Interpretations of Linguistic Relativity

    There are two intepretations of linguistic relativity:

    1. Does language determine behavior?
    2. Does language reflect behavior?

  2. Discussion

    1. Think about the interpretations of Linguistic Relativity in light of the foregoing examples.
    2. What examples can you add from
      1. your reading outside of class
      2. readings in other courses
      3. examples from your own experience and thinking.


Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA 17837
1997 | Robert Beard