Boroditsky (2005). Linguistic Relativity. (Encyclopedia of cognitive science.)

Boroditsky, L. (2005). Linguistic Relativity. In L. Nadel (Ed.), Encyclopedia of cognitive science. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Retrieved from

[“Does Language Shape Thought?” …]

“It appears that speakers of different languages have to attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world in order to use their language properly (Sapir, 1921; Slobin, 1996).” (¶ 2)

“The idea that thought is shaped by language is most commonly associated with the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (Whorf, 1956). Whorf, impressed by linguistic diversity, proposed that the categories and distinctions of each language enshrine a way of perceiving, analyzing, and acting in the world. In so far as languages differ, their speakers too should differ in how they perceive and act in objectively similar situations. This strong Whorfian view — that thought and action are entirely determined by language — has long been abandoned in the field. However, definitively answering less deterministic versions of the ‘does language shape thought’ question has proven to be a very difficult task. Some studies have claimed evidence to the affirmative (e.g. Boroditsky, 2001; Bowerman, 1996; Davidoff et al., 1999; Gentner and Imai, 1997; Levinson, 1996; Lucy, 1992; Dehaene et al., 1999), while others report evidence to the contrary (e.g. Heider, 1972; Malt et al., 1999; Li and Gleitman, 2002).” (¶ 3)

“In recent years, research on linguistic relativity has enjoyed a considerable resurgence, and much new evidence regarding the effects of language on thought has become available. This chapter reviews several lines of evidence regarding the effects of language on people’s representations of space, time, substances, and objects.” (¶ 4)

[“Space” …]

“Languages differ considerably in how they describe spatial relations.” (¶ 5)

[Examples given: language affecting gaze duration, perception of difference. –oki]

“McDonough et al. … This pattern of findings suggests that infants may come ready to attend to any number of spatial distinctions. However, as people learn and use language, the spatial distinctions reinforced by their particular language are the ones that remain salient in their representational repertoire.” (¶ 6)

“… the evidence available so far suggests that reference frames and distinctions made available by one’s language may indeed impose important constraints on one’s spatial thinking.” (¶ 10)

[“Time” …]

“Languages also differ from one another on their descriptions of time.” (¶ 11)

“A collection of studies showed that Mandarin speakers tend to think about time vertically even when thinking for English (Boroditsky, 2001).” (¶ 12)

“This last result suggests two things: (1) language is a powerful tool in shaping thought, and (2) one’s native language plays a role in shaping habitual thought (how we tend to think about time, for example) but does not completely determine thought in the strong Whorfian sense (since one can always learn a new way of talking, and with it, a new way of thinking).” (¶ 13)

[“Shapes And Substances” …]

“Languages also differ in the extent to which they make a grammatical distinction between objects and substances. For example, in English, objects like candles and chairs have distinct singular and plural forms (e.g. one candle versus two candles), but substances like mud and wax do not.” (¶ 14)

“Does talking about objects as if they were substances in their language lead Yucatec Mayans to attend more to the materials and substances that comprise the objects? Several studies suggest that this is indeed the case (e.g. Lucy and Gaskins, 2001).” (¶ 15)

[“Objects” …]

“… languages also differ in how names of objects are grouped into grammatical categories. … Unlike English, many languages have a grammatical gender system whereby all nouns (e.g. penguins, pockets, and toasters) are assigned a gender. Many languages only have masculine and feminine genders, but some also assign neuter, vegetative, and other more obscure genders.” (¶ 16)

“These findings once again indicate that people’s thinking about objects is influenced by the grammatical genders their native language assigns to the objects’ names. It appears that even a small fluke of grammar (the seemingly arbitrary assignment of a noun to be masculine or feminine) can have an effect on how people think about things in the world.” (¶ 17)

[“Conclusion” …]

“Languages appear to influence many aspects of human cognition: evidence regarding space, time, objects, and substances has been reviewed in this article, but further studies have also found effects of language on people’s understanding of numbers, colors, shapes, events, and other minds.” (¶ 18)

“… it appears that what we normally call ‘thinking’ is in fact a complex set of collaborations between linguistic and nonlinguistic representations and processes.” (¶ 19)


Selected References

  • Boroditsky, L (2001) Does language shape thought? Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology 43(1): 1-22.
  • Bowerman, M (1996) The origins of children’s spatial semantic categories: cognitive versus linguistic determinants. In: Gumperz, J and Levinson, S (eds) Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, pp. 145-176. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  • Davidoff, J, Davies, I and Roberson, D (1999) Colour categories of a stone-age tribe. Nature 398: 203-204.
  • Dehaene, S, Spelke, E, Pinel, P, Stanescu, R and Tsivkin, S (1999) Sources of mathematical thinking: behavioral and brain-imaging evidence. Science 284: 970-974.
  • Gentner, D and Imai, M (1997) A cross-linguistic study of early word meaning: universal ontology and linguistic influence. Cognition 62(2): 169-200.
  • Heider, E (1972) Universals in color naming and memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology 93: 10-20.
  • Levinson, S (1996) Frames of reference and Molyneux’s question: crosslinguistic evidence. In: Bloom, P and Peterson, M (eds) Language and Space, pp. 109-169. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Li, P and Gleitman, L (2002) Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning. Cognition 83: 265-294.
  • Lucy, J and Gaskins, S (2001) Grammatical categories and the development of classification preferences: a comparative approach. In: Bowerman, M and Levinson, S (eds) Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development, pp. 257-283. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Malt, B, Sloman, S, Gennari, S, Shi, M and Wang, Y (1999) Knowing versus naming: similarity and the linguistic categorization of artifacts. Journal of Memory and Language 40: 230-262.
  • McDonough, L, Choi, S and Mandler, J (2000) Development of language-specific categorization of spatial relations from prelinguistic to linguistic stage: a preliminary study. Paper presented at the Finding the Words Conference at Stanford University, Stanford, California, April, 2002.
  • Sapir, E (1921) Language. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and World.
  • Slobin, D (1996) From ‘thought and language’ to ‘thinking for speaking’. In: Gumperz, J and Levinson, S (eds) Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, pp. 70-96. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  • Whorf, B (1956) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, edited by Carroll, J B. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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