The hypothesis of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view or cognition. Also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined to include two versions: the strong hypothesis and the weak hypothesis:
The term "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis" is considered a misnomer by linguists for several reasons: Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf never co-authored any works, and never stated their ideas in terms of a hypothesis. The distinction between a weak and a strong version of this hypothesis is also a later invention; Sapir and Whorf never set up such a dichotomy, although often in their writings and in their views of this relativity principle are phrased in stronger or weaker terms.
The idea was first clearly expressed by 19th-century thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, who saw language as the expression of the spirit of a nation. Members of the early 20th-century school of American anthropology headed by Franz Boas and Edward Sapir also embraced forms of the idea to one degree or another, including in a 1928 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, but Sapir in particular wrote more often against than in favor of anything like linguistic determinism. Sapir's student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, came to be seen as the primary proponent as a result of his published observations of how he perceived linguistic differences to have consequences in human cognition and behavior. Harry Hoijer, another of Sapir's students, introduced the term "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", even though the two scholars never formally advanced any such hypothesis. A strong version of relativist theory was developed from the late 1920s by the German linguist Leo Weisgerber. Whorf's principle of linguistic relativity was reformulated as a testable hypothesis by Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg who conducted experiments designed to find out whether color perception varies between speakers of languages that classified colors differently. As the study of the universal nature of human language and cognition came into focus in the 1960s the idea of linguistic relativity fell out of favor among linguists. A 1969 study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay demonstrated the existence of universal semantic constraints in the field of colour terminology which were widely seen to discredit the existence of linguistic relativity in this domain, although this conclusion has been disputed by relativist researchers.
From the late 1980s, a new school of linguistic relativity scholars has examined the effects of differences in linguistic categorization on cognition, finding broad support for non-deterministic versions of the hypothesis in experimental contexts. Some effects of linguistic relativity have been shown in several semantic domains, although they are generally weak. Currently, a balanced view of linguistic relativity is espoused by most linguists holding that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes in non-trivial ways, but that other processes are better seen as arising from connectionist factors. Research is focused on exploring the ways and extent to which language influences thought. The principle of linguistic relativity and the relation between language and thought has also received attention in varying academic fields from philosophy to psychology and anthropology, and it has also inspired and coloured works of fiction and the invention of constructed languages.
The strongest form of the theory is linguistic determinism, which holds that language entirely determines the range of cognitive processes. The hypothesis of linguistic determinism is now generally agreed to be false.
This is the weaker form, proposing that language provides constraints in some areas of cognition, but that it is by no means determinative. Research on weaker forms has produced positive empirical evidence for a relationship.
The idea that language and thought are intertwined is ancient. Plato argued against sophist thinkers such as Gorgias of Leontini, who held that the physical world cannot be experienced except through language; this made the question of truth dependent on aesthetic preferences or functional consequences. Plato held instead that the world consisted of eternal ideas and that language should reflect these ideas as accurately as possible. Following Plato, St. Augustine, for example, held the view that language was merely labels applied to already existing concepts. This view remained prevalent throughout the Middle Ages. Roger Bacon held the opinion that language was but a veil covering up eternal truths, hiding them from human experience. For Immanuel Kant, language was but one of several tools used by humans to experience the world.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the idea of the existence of different national characters, or "Volksgeister", of different ethnic groups was the moving force behind the German romantics school and the beginning ideologies of ethnic nationalism.
Although himself a Swede, Emanuel Swedenborg inspired several of the German Romantics. As early as 1749, he alludes to something along the lines of linguistic relativity in commenting on a passage in the table of nations in the book of Genesis:
"Everyone according to his language, according to their families, as to their nations."[Genesis 10:5] This signifies that these were according to the genius of each; "according to their language," according to the opinion of each.... "Language," in its inner meaning, signifies opinion, thus principles and persuasions. This is because there is a correspondence of the language with the intellectual part of man, or with his thought, like that of an effect with its cause.
In 1771 he spelled this out more explicitly:
There is a common genius prevailing among those who are subject to one king, and who consequently are under one constitutional law. Germany is divided into more governments than the neighboring kingdoms.... However, a common genius prevails everywhere among people speaking the same language.
Johann Georg Hamann is often suggested to be the first among the actual German Romantics to speak of the concept of "the genius of a language." In his "Essay Concerning an Academic Question," Hamann suggests that a people's language affects their worldview:
The lineaments of their language will thus correspond to the direction of their mentality.
In 1820, Wilhelm von Humboldt connected the study of language to the national romanticist program by proposing the view that language is the fabric of thought. Thoughts are produced as a kind of internal dialog using the same grammar as the thinker's native language. This view was part of a larger picture in which the world view of an ethnic nation, their "Weltanschauung", was seen as being faithfully reflected in the grammar of their language. Von Humboldt argued that languages with an inflectional morphological type, such as German, English and the other Indo-European languages, were the most perfect languages and that accordingly this explained the dominance of their speakers over the speakers of less perfect languages. Wilhelm von Humboldt declared in 1820:
The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world.
The idea that some languages are superior to others and that lesser languages maintained their speakers in intellectual poverty was widespread in the early 20th century. American linguist William Dwight Whitney, for example, actively strove to eradicate Native American languages, arguing that their speakers were savages and would be better off learning English and adopting a "civilized" way of life. The first anthropologist and linguist to challenge this view was Franz Boas. While undertaking geographical research in northern Canada he became fascinated with the Inuit people and decided to become an ethnographer. Boas stressed the equal worth of all cultures and languages, that there was no such thing as a primitive language and that all languages were capable of expressing the same content, albeit by widely differing means. Boas saw language as an inseparable part of culture and he was among the first to require of ethnographers to learn the native language of the culture under study and to document verbal culture such as myths and legends in the original language.
It does not seem likely [...] that there is any direct relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak, except in so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the state of the culture, but not in so far as a certain state of the culture is conditioned by the morphological traits of the language."
Boas' student Edward Sapir reached back to the Humboldtian idea that languages contained the key to understanding the world views of peoples. He espoused the viewpoint that because of the differences in the grammatical systems of languages no two languages were similar enough to allow for perfect cross-translation. Sapir also thought because language represented reality differently, it followed that the speakers of different languages would perceive reality differently.
No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.
On the other hand, Sapir explicitly rejected strong linguistic determinism by stating, "It would be naïve to imagine that any analysis of experience is dependent on pattern expressed in language."
Sapir was explicit that the connections between language and culture were neither thoroughgoing nor particularly deep, if they existed at all:
It is easy to show that language and culture are not intrinsically associated. Totally unrelated languages share in one culture; closely related languages—even a single language—belong to distinct culture spheres. There are many excellent examples in Aboriginal America. The Athabaskan languages form as clearly unified, as structurally specialized, a group as any that I know of. The speakers of these languages belong to four distinct culture areas... The cultural adaptability of the Athabaskan-speaking peoples is in the strangest contrast to the inaccessibility to foreign influences of the languages themselves.
Sapir offered similar observations about speakers of so-called "world" or "modern" languages, noting, "possession of a common language is still and will continue to be a smoother of the way to a mutual understanding between England and America, but it is very clear that other factors, some of them rapidly cumulative, are working powerfully to counteract this leveling influence. A common language cannot indefinitely set the seal on a common culture when the geographical, physical, and economics determinants of the culture are no longer the same throughout the area."
While Sapir never made a point of studying directly how languages affected thought, some notion of (probably "weak") linguistic relativity underlay his basic understanding of language, and would be taken up by Whorf.
Drawing on influences such as Humboldt and Friedrich Nietzsche, some European thinkers developed ideas similar to those of Sapir and Whorf, generally working in isolation from each other. Prominent in Germany from the late 1920s through into the 1960s were the strongly relativist theories of Leo Weisgerber and his key concept of a 'linguistic inter-world', mediating between external reality and the forms of a given language, in ways peculiar to that language. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky read Sapir's work and experimentally studied the ways in which the development of concepts in children was influenced by structures given in language. His 1934 work "Thought and Language" has been compared to Whorf's and taken as mutually supportive evidence of language's influence on cognition. Drawing on Nietzsche's ideas of perspectivism Alfred Korzybski developed the theory of general semantics that has been compared to Whorf's notions of linguistic relativity. Though influential in their own right, this work has not been influential in the debate on linguistic relativity, which has tended to center on the American paradigm exemplified by Sapir and Whorf.
More than any linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf has become associated with what he called the "linguistic relativity principle". Studying Native American languages, he attempted to account for the ways in which grammatical systems and language use differences affected perception. Whorf also examined how a scientific account of the world differed from a religious account, which led him to study the original languages of religious scripture and to write several anti-evolutionist pamphlets. Whorf's opinions regarding the nature of the relation between language and thought remain under contention. Critics such as Lenneberg, Black and Pinker attribute to Whorf a strong linguistic determinism, while Lucy, Silverstein and Levinson point to Whorf's explicit rejections of determinism, and where he contends that translation and commensuration is possible.
Although Whorf lacked an advanced degree in linguistics, his reputation reflects his acquired competence. His peers at Yale University considered the 'amateur' Whorf to be the best man available to take over Sapir's graduate seminar in Native American linguistics while Sapir was on sabbatical in 1937–38. He was highly regarded by authorities such as Boas, Sapir, Bloomfield and Tozzer. Indeed, Lucy wrote, "despite his 'amateur' status, Whorf's work in linguistics was and still is recognized as being of superb professional quality by linguists".
Detractors such as Lenneberg, Chomsky and Pinker criticized him for insufficient clarity in his description of how language influences thought, and for not proving his conjectures. Most of his arguments were in the form of anecdotes and speculations that served as attempts to show how 'exotic' grammatical traits were connected to what were apparently equally exotic worlds of thought. In Whorf's words:
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language [...] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.
Among Whorf's best-known examples of linguistic relativity are instances where an indigenous language has several terms for a concept that is only described with one word in European languages (Whorf used the acronym SAE "Standard Average European" to allude to the rather similar grammatical structures of the well-studied European languages in contrast to the greater diversity of less-studied languages).
Another is the Hopi language's words for water, one indicating drinking water in a container and another indicating a natural body of water. These examples of polysemy served the double purpose of showing that indigenous languages sometimes made more fine grained semantic distinctions than European languages and that direct translation between two languages, even of seemingly basic concepts such as snow or water, is not always possible.
Another example is from Whorf's experience as a chemical engineer working for an insurance company as a fire inspector. While inspecting a chemical plant he observed that the plant had two storage rooms for gasoline barrels, one for the full barrels and one for the empty ones. He further noticed that while no employees smoked cigarettes in the room for full barrels, no-one minded smoking in the room with empty barrels, although this was potentially much more dangerous because of the highly flammable vapors still in the barrels. He concluded that the use of the word empty in connection to the barrels had led the workers to unconsciously regard them as harmless, although consciously they were probably aware of the risk of explosion. This example was later criticized by Lenneberg as not actually demonstrating causality between the use of the word empty and the action of smoking, but instead was an example of circular reasoning. Pinker in The Language Instinct ridiculed this example, claiming that this was a failing of human insight rather than language.
Whorf's most elaborate argument for linguistic relativity regarded what he believed to be a fundamental difference in the understanding of time as a conceptual category among the Hopi. He argued that in contrast to English and other SAE languages, Hopi does not treat the flow of time as a sequence of distinct, countable instances, like "three days" or "five years," but rather as a single process and that consequently it has no nouns referring to units of time as SAE speakers understand them. He proposed that this view of time was fundamental to Hopi culture and explained certain Hopi behavioral patterns. Malotki later claimed that he had found no evidence of Whorf's claims in 1980's era speakers, nor in historical documents dating back to the arrival of Europeans. Malotki used evidence from archaeological data, calendars, historical documents, modern speech and concluded that there was no evidence that Hopi conceptualize time in the way Whorf suggested. Universalist scholars such as Pinker often see Malotki's study as a final refutation of Whorf's claim about Hopi, whereas relativist scholars such as Lucy and Penny Lee criticized Malotki's study for mischaracterizing Whorf's claims and for forcing Hopi grammar into a model of analysis that doesn't fit the data.
Whorf died in 1941 at age 44, leaving multiple unpublished papers. His line of thought was continued by linguists and anthropologists such as Hoijer and Lee who both continued investigations into the effect of language on habitual thought, and Trager, who prepared a number of Whorf's papers for posthumous publishing. The most important event for the dissemination of Whorf's ideas to a larger public was the publication in 1956 of his major writings on the topic of linguistic relativity in a single volume titled Language, Thought and Reality.
In 1953, Eric Lenneberg criticised Whorf's examples from an objectivist view of language holding that languages are principally meant to represent events in the real world and that even though languages express these ideas in various ways, the meanings of such expressions and therefore the thoughts of the speaker are equivalent. He argued that Whorf's English descriptions of a Hopi speaker's view of time were in fact translations of the Hopi concept into English, therefore disproving linguistic relativity. However Whorf was concerned with how the habitual use of language influences habitual behavior, rather than translatability. Whorf's point was that while English speakers may be able to understand how a Hopi speaker thinks, they do not think in that way.
Lenneberg's main criticism of Whorf's works was that he never showed the connection between a linguistic phenomenon and a mental phenomenon. With Brown, Lenneberg proposed that proving such a connection required directly matching linguistic phenomena with behavior. They assessed linguistic relativity experimentally and published their findings in 1954.
Since neither Sapir nor Whorf had ever stated a formal hypothesis, Brown and Lenneberg formulated their own. Their two tenets were (i) "the world is differently experienced and conceived in different linguistic communities" and (ii) "language causes a particular cognitive structure". Brown later developed them into the so-called "weak" and "strong" formulation:
- Structural differences between language systems will, in general, be paralleled by nonlinguistic cognitive differences, of an unspecified sort, in the native speakers of the language.
- The structure of anyone's native language strongly influences or fully determines the worldview he will acquire as he learns the language.
Brown's formulations became widely known and were retrospectively attributed to Whorf and Sapir although the second formulation, verging on linguistic determinism, was never advanced by either of them.
Since Brown and Lenneberg believed that the objective reality denoted by language was the same for speakers of all languages, they decided to test how different languages codified the same message differently and whether differences in codification could be proven to affect behavior.
They designed experiments involving the codification of colors. In their first experiment, they investigated whether it was easier for speakers of English to remember color shades for which they had a specific name than to remember colors that were not as easily definable by words. This allowed them to compare the linguistic categorization directly to a non-linguistic task. In a later experiment, speakers of two languages that categorize colors differently (English and Zuni) were asked to recognize colors. In this way, it could be determined whether the differing color categories of the two speakers would determine their ability to recognize nuances within color categories. Brown and Lenneberg found that Zuñi speakers who classify green and blue together as a single color did have trouble recognizing and remembering nuances within the green/blue category. Brown and Lenneberg's study began a tradition of investigation of linguistic relativity through color terminology.
Lenneberg was also one of the first cognitive scientists to begin development of the Universalist theory of language that was formulated by Chomsky in the form of Universal Grammar, effectively arguing that all languages share the same underlying structure. The Chomskyan school also holds the belief that linguistic structures are largely innate and that what are perceived as differences between specific languages are surface phenomena that do not affect the brain's universal cognitive processes. This theory became the dominant paradigm in American linguistics from the 1960s through the 1980s, while linguistic relativity became the object of ridicule.
Examples of universalist influence in the 1960s are the studies by Berlin and Kay who continued Lenneberg's color research. They studied color terminology formation and showed clear universal trends in color naming. For example, they found that even though languages have different color terminologies, they generally recognize certain hues as more focal than others. They showed that in languages with few color terms, it is predictable from the number of terms which hues are chosen as focal colors, for example, languages with only three color terms always have the focal colors black, white and red. The fact that what had been believed to be random differences between color naming in different languages could be shown to follow universal patterns was seen as a powerful argument against linguistic relativity. Berlin and Kay's research has since been criticized by relativists such as Lucy, who argued that Berlin and Kay's conclusions were skewed by their insistence that color terms encode only color information. This, Lucy argues, made them blind to the instances in which color terms provided other information that might be considered examples of linguistic relativity.
Other universalist researchers dedicated themselves to dispelling other aspects of linguistic relativity, often attacking Whorf's specific points and examples. For example, Malotki's monumental study of time expressions in Hopi presented many examples that challenged Whorf's "timeless" interpretation of Hopi language and culture.
Today many followers of the universalist school of thought still oppose linguistic relativity. For example, Pinker argues in The Language Instinct that thought is independent of language, that language is itself meaningless in any fundamental way to human thought, and that human beings do not even think in "natural" language, i.e. any language that we actually communicate in; rather, we think in a meta-language, preceding any natural language, called "mentalese." Pinker attacks what he calls "Whorf's radical position," declaring, "the more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make."
Joshua Fishman argued that Whorf's true position was largely overlooked. In 1978, he suggested that Whorf was a "neo-Herderian champion" and in 1982, he proposed "Whorfianism of the third kind" in an attempt to refocus linguists' attention on what he claimed was Whorf's real interest, namely the intrinsic value of "little peoples" and "little languages". Whorf had criticized Ogden's Basic English thus:
But to restrict thinking to the patterns merely of English […] is to lose a power of thought which, once lost, can never be regained. It is the 'plainest' English which contains the greatest number of unconscious assumptions about nature. […] We handle even our plain English with much greater effect if we direct it from the vantage point of a multilingual awareness.
Where Brown's weak version of the linguistic relativity hypothesis proposes that language influences thought and the strong version that language determines thought, Fishman's 'Whorfianism of the third kind' proposes that language is a key to culture.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, advances in cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics renewed interest in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. One of those who adopted a more Whorfian approach was George Lakoff. He argued that language is often used metaphorically and that languages use different cultural metaphors that reveal something about how speakers of that language think. For example, English employs conceptual metaphors likening time with money, so that time can be saved and spent and invested, whereas other languages do not talk about time in that way. Other such metaphors are common to many languages because they are based on general human experience, for example, metaphors likening up with good and bad with down. Lakoff also argued that metaphor plays an important part in political debates such as the "right to life" or the "right to choose"; or "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers".
In his book Women, Fire and Dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind, Lakoff reappraised linguistic relativity and especially Whorf's views about how linguistic categorization reflects and/or influences mental categories. He concluded that the debate had been confused. He described four parameters on which researchers differed in their opinions about what constitutes linguistic relativity:
Lakoff concluded that many of Whorf's critics had criticized him using novel definitions of linguistic relativity, rendering their criticisms moot.
The publication of the 1996 anthology Rethinking Linguistic Relativity edited by Gumperz and Levinson began a new period of linguistic relativity studies that focused on cognitive and social aspects. The book included studies on the linguistic relativity and universalist traditions. Levinson documented significant linguistic relativity effects in the linguistic conceptualization of spatial categories between languages. Separate studies by Bowerman and Slobin treated the role of language in cognitive processes. Bowerman showed that certain cognitive processes did not use language to any significant extent and therefore could not be subject to linguistic relativity. Slobin described another kind of cognitive process that he named "thinking for speaking" – the kind of process in which perceptional data and other kinds of prelinguistic cognition are translated into linguistic terms for communication. These, Slobin argues, are the kinds of cognitive process that are at the root of linguistic relativity.
Researchers such as Boroditsky, Lucy and Levinson believe that language influences thought in more limited ways than the broadest early claims. Researchers examine the interface between thought (or cognition), language and culture and describe the relevant influences. They use experimental data to back up their conclusions. Kay ultimately concluded that "[the] Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left". His findings show that accounting for brain lateralization offers another perspective.
Psycholinguistic studies explored motion perception, emotion perception, object representation and memory. The gold standard of psycholinguistic studies on linguistic relativity is now finding non-linguistic cognitive differences in speakers of different languages (thus rendering inapplicable Pinker's criticism that linguistic relativity is "circular").
Recent work with bilingual speakers attempts to distinguish the effects of language from those of culture on bilingual cognition including perceptions of time, space, motion, colors and emotion. Researchers described differences between bilinguals and monolinguals in perception of color, representations of time and other elements of cognition.
Lucy identified three main strands of research into linguistic relativity.
The "structure-centered" approach starts with a language's structural peculiarity and examines its possible ramifications for thought and behavior. The defining example is Whorf's observation of discrepancies between the grammar of time expressions in Hopi and English. More recent research in this vein is Lucy's research describing how usage of the categories of grammatical number and of numeral classifiers in the Mayan language Yucatec result in Mayan speakers classifying objects according to material rather than to shape as preferred by English speakers.
The "domain-centered" approach selects a semantic domain and compares it across linguistic and cultural groups. It centered on color terminology, although this domain is acknowledged to be sub-optimal, because color perception, unlike other semantic domains, is hardwired into the neural system and as such is subject to more universal restrictions than other semantic domains.
Space is another semantic domain that has proven fruitful for linguistic relativity studies. Spatial categories vary greatly across languages. Speakers rely on the linguistic conceptualization of space in performing many ordinary tasks. Levinson and others reported three basic spatial categorizations. While many languages use combinations of them, some languages exhibit only one type and related behaviors. For example, Yimithirr only uses absolute directions when describing spatial relations — the position of everything is described by using the cardinal directions. Speakers define a location as "north of the house", while an English speaker may use relative positions, saying "in front of the house" or "to the left of the house".
The "behavior centered" approach starts by comparing behavior across linguistic groups and then searches for causes for that behavior in the linguistic system. Whorf attributed the occurrence of fires at a chemical plant to the workers' use of the word 'empty' to describe the barrels containing only explosive vapors. Bloom noticed that speakers of Chinese had unexpected difficulties answering counter-factual questions posed to them in a questionnaire. He concluded that this was related to the way in which counter-factuality is marked grammatically in Chinese. Other researchers attributed this result to Bloom's flawed translations. Strømnes examined why Finnish factories had a higher occurrence of work related accidents than similar Swedish ones. He concluded that cognitive differences between the grammatical usage of Swedish prepositions and Finnish cases could have caused Swedish factories to pay more attention to the work process while Finnish factory organizers paid more attention to the individual worker.
Everett's work on the Pirahã language of the Brazilian Amazon found several peculiarities that he interpreted as corresponding to linguistically rare features, such as a lack of numbers and color terms in the way those are otherwise defined and the absence of certain types of clauses. Everett's conclusions were met with skepticism from universalists who claimed that the linguistic deficit is explained by the lack of need for such concepts.
Recent research with non-linguistic experiments in languages with different grammatical properties (e.g., languages with and without numeral classifiers or with different gender grammar systems) showed that language differences in human categorization are due to such differences. Experimental research suggests that this linguistic influence on thought diminishes over time, as when speakers of one language are exposed to another.
A study published by the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology claimed that language can influence how one estimates time. The study focused on three groups, those who spoke only Swedish, those who spoke only Spanish and bilingual speakers who spoke both of those languages. Swedish speakers describe time using distance terms like "long" or "short" while Spanish speakers do it using volume related terms like "big" or "small". The researchers asked the participants to estimate how much time had passed while watching a line growing across a screen, or a container being filled, or both. The researches stated that "When reproducing duration, Swedish speakers were misled by stimulus length, and Spanish speakers were misled by stimulus size/quantity." When the bilinguals where prompted with the word “duración” (the Spanish word for duration) they based their time estimates of how full the containers were, ignoring the growing lines. When prompted with the word “tid” (the Swedish word for duration) they estimated the time elapsed solely by the distance the lines had traveled.
Research continued after Lenneberg/Roberts and Brown/Lenneberg. The studies showed a correlation between color term numbers and ease of recall in both Zuni and English speakers. Researchers attributed this to focal colors having higher codability than less focal colors, and not with linguistic relativity effects. Berlin/Kay found universal typological color principles that are determined by biological rather than linguistic factors. This study sparked studies into typological universals of color terminology. Researchers such as Lucy, Saunders and Levinson argued that Berlin and Kay's study does not refute linguistic relativity in color naming, because of unsupported assumptions in their study (such as whether all cultures in fact have a clearly-defined category of "color") and because of related data problems. Researchers such as Maclaury continued investigation into color naming. Like Berlin and Kay, Maclaury concluded that the domain is governed mostly by physical-biological universals.
Linguistic relativity inspired others to consider whether thought could be influenced by manipulating language.
The question bears on philosophical, psychological, linguistic and anthropological questions.
A major question is whether human psychological faculties are mostly innate or whether they are mostly a result of learning, and hence subject to cultural and social processes such as language. The innate view holds that humans share the same set of basic faculties, and that variability due to cultural differences is less important and that the human mind is a mostly biological construction, so that all humans sharing the same neurological configuration can be expected to have similar cognitive patterns.
Multiple alternatives have advocates. The contrary constructivist position holds that human faculties and concepts are largely influenced by socially constructed and learned categories, without many biological restrictions. Another variant is idealist, which holds that human mental capacities are generally unrestricted by biological-material strictures. Another is essentialist, which holds that essential differences may influence the ways individuals or groups experience and conceptualize the world. Yet another is relativist (Cultural relativism), which sees different cultural groups as employing different conceptual schemes that are not necessarily compatible or commensurable, nor more or less in accord with external reality.
Another debate considers whether thought is a form of internal speech or is independent of and prior to language.
In the philosophy of language the question addresses the relations between language, knowledge and the external world, and the concept of truth. Philosophers such as Putnam, Fodor, Davidson, and Dennett see language as representing directly entities from the objective world and that categorization reflect that world. Other philosophers (e.g. Wittgenstein, Quine, Searle, Foucault) argue that categorization and conceptualization is subjective and arbitrary.
Another question is whether language is a tool for representing and referring to objects in the world, or whether it is a system used to construct mental representations that can be communicated.
Sapir/Whorf contemporary Alfred Korzybski was independently developing his theory of general semantics, which was aimed at using language's influence on thinking to maximize human cognitive abilities. Korzybski's thinking was influenced by logical philosophy such as Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica and Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Although Korzybski was not aware of Sapir and Whorf's writings, the movement was followed by Whorf-admirer Stuart Chase, who fused Whorf's interest in cultural-linguistic variation with Korzybski's programme in his popular work "The Tyranny of Words". S. I. Hayakawa was a follower and popularizer of Korzybski's work, writing Language in Thought and Action. The general semantics movement influenced the development of neurolinguistic programming, another therapeutic technique that seeks to use awareness of language use to influence cognitive patterns.
Korzybski independently described a "strong" version of the hypothesis of linguistic relativity.
We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of s[emantic] r[eactions] and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us.— Korzybski (1930) 
In their fiction, authors such as Ayn Rand and George Orwell explored how linguistic relativity might be exploited for political purposes. In Rand's Anthem, a fictive communist society removed the possibility of individualism by removing the word "I" from the language. In Orwell's 1984 the authoritarian state created the language Newspeak to make it impossible for people to think critically about the government, or even to contemplate that they might be impoverished or oppressed, by reducing the number of words to reduce the thought of the locutor.
Others have been fascinated by the possibilities of creating new languages that could enable new, and perhaps better, ways of thinking. Examples of such languages designed to explore the human mind include Loglan, explicitly designed by James Cooke Brown to test the linguistic relativity hypothesis, by experimenting whether it would make its speakers think more logically. Speakers of Lojban, an evolution of Loglan, report that they feel speaking the language enhances their ability for logical thinking. Suzette Haden Elgin, who was involved in the early development of neurolinguistic programming, invented the language Láadan to explore linguistic relativity by making it easier to express what Elgin considered the female worldview, as opposed to Standard Average European languages which she considered to convey a "male centered" world view. John Quijada's language Ithkuil was designed to explore the limits of the number of cognitive categories a language can keep its speakers aware of at once. Similarly, Sonja Lang's Toki Pona was developed according to a Taoist point of view for exploring how (or if) such a language would direct human thought.
APL programming language originator Kenneth E. Iverson believed that the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis applied to computer languages (without actually mentioning it by name). His Turing award lecture, "Notation as a tool of thought", was devoted to this theme, arguing that more powerful notations aided thinking about computer algorithms.
The essays of Paul Graham explore similar themes, such as a conceptual hierarchy of computer languages, with more expressive and succinct languages at the top. Thus, the so-called blub paradox (after a hypothetical programming language of average complexity called Blub) says that anyone preferentially using some particular programming language will know that it is more powerful than some, but not that it is less powerful than others. The reason is that writing in some language means thinking in that language. Hence the paradox, because typically programmers are "satisfied with whatever language they happen to use, because it dictates the way they think about programs".
In a 2003 presentation at an open source convention, Yukihiro Matsumoto, creator of the programming language Ruby, said that one of his inspirations for developing the language was the science fiction novel Babel-17, based on the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis.
Ted Chiang's short story Story of Your Life developed the concept of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as applied to an alien species which visits Earth. The aliens' biology contributes to their spoken and written languages, which are distinct. In the 2016 American film Arrival, based on Chiang's short story, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the premise. The protagonist explains that "the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theory that the language you speak determines how you think".
In his science fiction novel The Languages of Pao the author Jack Vance describes how specialized languages are a major part of a strategy to create specific classes in a society, to enable the population to withstand occupation and develop itself.
Balthasar Bickel (born December 19, 1965), is a Swiss linguist. Bickel is a specialist in linguistic typology and on Tibeto-Burman languages, especially languages of the Kiranti group.
He is currently a professor at the Department of Comparative Linguistics at the University of Zurich. Between 2002 and 2011, he taught at the Leipzig University in Germany. He received his graduate training at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and earned his doctoral degree from the University of Zurich. As a postdoctoral researcher, he spent several years at the University of California, Berkeley, where he became a close collaborator of Johanna Nichols.
Bickel has made contributions to the study of tense and aspect, grammatical agreement and grammatical relations, morphological typology, phonological word domains, areal typology, linguistic relativity, and more recently to quantitative methods in language typology. He has done extensive fieldwork on a number of Kiranti languages of Nepal, especially Belhare, Chintang and Puma. He is co-editor of the journal Studies in Language.Barasana
Barasana (alternate names Barazana, Panenua, Pareroa, or Taiwano is an exonym applied to an Amazonian people, considered distinct from the Taiwano, though the dialect of the latter is almost identical to that of the Barasana, and outside observers can detect only minute differences between the two languages. They are a Tucanoan group located in the eastern part of the Amazon Basin in Vaupés Department in Colombia and Amazonas State in Brazil. As of 2000 there were at least 500 Barasanas in Colombia, though some recent estimates place the figure as high as 1950. A further 40 live on the Brazilian side, in the municipalities of Japurá and São Gabriel da Cachoeira.The Barasana refers to themselves as the jebá.~baca, or people of the jaguar (Jebá "jaguar" is their mythical ancestor).Belhare language
Belhare (Nepali: Belhāreor), also known as Athpariya II (not to be confused with Athpariya I), is a Kiranti language spoken by some 2,000 people living on Belhara Hill, at the southern foothills of the Himalayas situated in the Dhankuta District, Kosi Zone in eastern Nepal. All speakers of Belhare are bilingual in Nepali, which results in frequent code mixing and a large amount of Nepali loan-words. Nevertheless, the grammar of Belhare has maintained its distinct Kiranti characteristics.Like other Kiranti languages, Belhare is characterized by an elaborate morphology in both the nominal and verbal domain. Syntactically, Belhare has partly an accusative, partly an ergative pivot, but accusative syntax is more prominent in terms of frequency.Benjamin Lee Whorf
Benjamin Lee Whorf (; April 24, 1897 – July 26, 1941) was an American linguist and fire prevention engineer. Whorf is widely known as an advocate for the idea that differences between the structures of different languages shape how their speakers perceive and conceptualize the world. This principle has frequently been called the "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", after him and his mentor Edward Sapir, but Whorf called it the principle of linguistic relativity, because he saw the idea as having implications similar to Einstein's principle of physical relativity.Throughout his life Whorf was a chemical engineer by profession, but as a young man he took up an interest in linguistics. At first this interest drew him to the study of Biblical Hebrew, but he quickly went on to study the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica on his own. Professional scholars were impressed by his work and in 1930 he received a grant to study the Nahuatl language in Mexico; on his return home he presented several influential papers on the language at linguistics conferences.
This led him to begin studying linguistics with Edward Sapir at Yale University while still maintaining his day job at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. During his time at Yale he worked on the description of the Hopi language, and the historical linguistics of the Uto-Aztecan languages, publishing many influential papers in professional journals. He was chosen as the substitute for Sapir during his medical leave in 1938. Whorf taught his seminar on "Problems of American Indian Linguistics". In addition to his well-known work on linguistic relativity, he wrote a grammar sketch of Hopi and studies of Nahuatl dialects, proposed a deciphering of Maya hieroglyphic writing, and published the first attempt towards a reconstruction of Uto-Aztecan.
After his death from cancer in 1941 his manuscripts were curated by his linguist friends who also worked to spread the influence of Whorf's ideas on the relation between language, culture and cognition. Many of his works were published posthumously in the first decades after his death. In the 1960s Whorf's views fell out of favor and he became the subject of harsh criticisms by scholars who considered language structure to primarily reflect cognitive universals rather than cultural differences. Critics argued that Whorf's ideas were untestable and poorly formulated and that they were based on badly analyzed or misunderstood data.
In the late 20th century, interest in Whorf's ideas experienced a resurgence, and a new generation of scholars began reading Whorf's works, arguing that previous critiques had only engaged superficially with Whorf's actual ideas, or had attributed to him ideas he had never expressed. The field of linguistic relativity studies remains an active focus of research in psycholinguistics and linguistic anthropology, and continues to generate debate and controversy between proponents of relativism and proponents of universalism. By comparison, Whorf's other work in linguistics, the development of such concepts as the allophone and the cryptotype, and the formulation of "Whorf's law" in Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics, have met with broad acceptance.Cognitive linguistics
Cognitive linguistics (CL) is an interdisciplinary branch of linguistics, combining knowledge and research from both psychology and linguistics. It describes how language interacts with cognition, how language forms our thoughts, and the evolution of language parallel with the change in the common mindset across time.According to Merriam-Webster, the word "cognitive" is defined as "of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering)". Merriam-Webster also defines linguistics as "the study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language". Combining those two definitions together to form cognitive linguistics would provide the notion of the concepts and ideas discussed in the realm of CL. Within CL, the analysis of the conceptual and experiential basis of linguistic categories is of primary importance. The formal structures of language are studied not as if they were autonomous, but as reflections of general conceptual organization, categorization principles, processing mechanisms, and experiential and environmental influences.
Since cognitive linguistics sees language as embedded in the overall cognitive capacities of human beings, topics of special interest for cognitive linguistics include: the structural characteristics of natural language categorization (such as prototypicality, systematic polysemy, cognitive models, mental imagery, and conceptual metaphor); the functional principles of linguistic organization (such as iconicity and naturalness); the conceptual interface between syntax and semantics (as explored by cognitive grammar and construction grammar); the experiential and pragmatic background of language-in-use; and the relationship between language and thought, including questions about linguistic relativity and conceptual universals.
What holds together the diverse forms of cognitive linguistics is the belief that linguistic knowledge involves not just knowledge of the language, but knowledge of the world as mediated by the language. In addition, cognitive linguistics argues that language is both embodied and situated in a specific environment.Entity
An entity is anything that claims independent existence (as opposed to merely being part of a whole), whether as a subject or as an object, actually or potentially, concretely or abstractly.
The term is broad in scope and may refer to animals; natural features like mountains; inanimate objects like tables; abstractions like numbers or sets; human contrivances like laws, corporations and academic disciplines; or supernatural beings like Gods and spirits.
The adjectival form is entitative and refers to something considered in its own right.Eskimo words for snow
The claim that Eskimo languages (specifically, Yupik and Inuit) have an unusually large number of words for "snow", first loosely attributed to the work of anthropologist Franz Boas, has become a cliché often used to support the controversial linguistic-relativity hypothesis: the idea that a language's structure (sound, grammar, vocabulary, etc.) shapes its speakers' view of the world. This "strong version" of the hypothesis is largely now discredited, though the basic notion that Eskimo languages have many more root words for "snow" than the English language is itself supported by a single 2010 study.Experimental language
An experimental language is a constructed language designed for linguistics research, often on the relationship between language and thought.
One particular assumption having received much attention in fiction is popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. The claim is that the structure of a language somehow affects the way its speakers perceive their world, either strongly, in which case "language determines thought" (linguistic determinism), or weakly, in which case "language influences thought" (linguistic relativity). (For a list of languages that are merely mentioned, see the relevant section in List of constructed languages.)
The extreme case of the strong version of the hypothesis would be the idea that words have a power inherent to themselves such that their use determines not just our thoughts, but even that which our thoughts are about, i.e. reality itself. This idea, however, is more properly treated within ontology than linguistics.Hopi time controversy
The Hopi time controversy is the academic debate about how the Hopi language grammaticalizes the concept of time, and about whether the differences between the ways the English and Hopi languages describe time are an example of linguistic relativity or not. In popular discourse the debate is often framed as a question about whether the Hopi "had a concept of time", despite it now being well established that they do.
The debate originated in the 1940s when American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that the Hopi conceptualized time differently from the Standard Average European speaker, and that this difference correlated with grammatical differences between the languages. Whorf argued that Hopi has "no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call 'time'", and concluded that the Hopi had "no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at equal rate, out of a future, through the present, into a past". Whorf used the Hopi concept of time as a primary example of his concept of linguistic relativity, which posits that the way in which individual languages encode information about the world, influences and correlates with the cultural world view of the speakers. Whorf's relativist views fell out of favor in linguistics and anthropology in the 1960s, but Whorf's statement lived on in the popular literature often in the form of an urban myth that "the Hopi have no concept of time". In 1983 linguist Ekkehart Malotki published a 600-page study of the grammar of time in the Hopi language, concluding that he had finally refuted Whorf's claims about the language. Malotki's treatise gave hundreds of examples of Hopi words and grammatical forms referring to temporal relations. Malotki's central claim was that the Hopi do indeed conceptualize time as structured in terms of an ego-centered spatial progression from past, through present into the future. He also demonstrated that the Hopi language grammaticalizes tense using a distinction between future and non-future tenses, as opposed to the English tense system, which is usually analyzed as being based on a past/non-past distinction. Many took Malotki's work as a definitive refutation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Linguist and specialist in the linguistic typology of tense Bernard Comrie concluded that "Malotki's presentation and argumentation are devastating". Psychologist Steven Pinker, a well-known critic of Whorf and the concept of linguistic relativity, accepted Malotki's claims as having demonstrated Whorf's complete ineptitude as a linguist.Subsequently, the study of linguistic relativity was revived using new approaches in the 1990s, and Malotki's study came under criticism from relativist linguists and anthropologists, who did not consider that the study invalidated Whorf's claims. The main issue of contention is the interpretation of Whorf's original claims about Hopi, and what exactly it was that he was claiming made Hopi different from what Whorf called "Standard Average European" languages. Some consider that the Hopi language may be best described as a tenseless language, and that the distinction between non-future and future posited by Malotki may be better understood as a distinction between realis and irrealis moods. Regardless of exactly how the Hopi concept of time is best analyzed, most specialists agree with Malotki that all humans conceptualize time by an analogy with space, although some recent studies have also questioned this.Index of philosophy of language articles
This is an index of articles in philosophy of language
Alfred Jules Ayer
Alphabet of human thought
Applicative Universal Grammar
Archie J. Bahm
Association for Logic, Language and Information
Bob Hale (philosopher)
Carl Gustav Hempel
Causal theory of reference
César Chesneau Dumarsais
Cheung Kam Ching
Concept and object
Contrast theory of meaning
David Kellogg Lewis
De dicto and de re
Descriptivist theory of names
Direct reference theory
Direction of fit
Donald Davidson (philosopher)
Ethics and Language
European Summer School in Logic, Language and Information
F. H. Bradley
Failure to refer
Form of life (philosophy)
Function and Concept
G. E. M. Anscombe
Gareth Evans (philosopher)
Gordon Park Baker
Ideal speech situation
Indeterminacy of translation
Inferential role semantics
Internalism and externalism
J. L. Austin
James F. Conant
Jonathan Bennett (philosopher)
Journal of Logic, Language and Information
Language and thought
Language of thought
Language, Truth, and Logic
Linguistics and Philosophy
List of philosophers of language
Meaning (philosophy of language)
Mediated reference theory
Metaphor in philosophy
Modularity of mind
Mumbo Jumbo (phrase)
Naming and Necessity
Ordinary language philosophy
P. F. Strawson
Philosophical interpretation of classical physics
Philosophy and literature
Philosophy of language
Principle of charity
Principle of compositionality
Private language argument
Proper name (philosophy)
Redundancy theory of truth
Rhetoric of social intervention model
Richard von Mises
Robert Maximilian de Gaynesford
Round square copula
S. Morris Engel
Sense and reference
Sense and Sensibilia (Austin)
The Naturalization of Intentionality
Theory of descriptions
Two Dogmas of Empiricism
Willard Van Orman Quine
William C. Dowling
Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language
Word and Object
ZhuangziJohn A. Lucy
John A. Lucy is an American linguist and psychologist who has been studying the relations between language and cognition, and especially the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, since 1979. He is the William Benton Professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development and the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. He has worked extensively with the Yucatec Maya language, specializing in the system of noun classification.Lera Boroditsky
Lera Boroditsky (born 1976?) is a cognitive scientist and professor in the fields of language and cognition. She is currently one of the main contributors to the Theory of Linguistic Relativity. She is a Searle Scholar, a McDonnell Scholar, recipient of a National Science Foundation Career award, and an American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientist. She is Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. She previously served on the faculty at MIT and at Stanford.Linguistic determinism
Linguistic determinism is the idea that language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought, as well as thought processes such as categorization, memory, and perception. The term implies that people who speak different languages as their mother tongues have different thought processes.Linguistic determinism is the strong form of linguistic relativity (popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis), which argues that individuals experience the world based on the structure of the language they habitually use.
Though it played a considerable role historically, linguistic determinism is now discredited among mainstream linguists.Linguistic relativity and the color naming debate
The concept of linguistic relativity concerns the relationship between language and thought, specifically whether language influences thought, and, if so, how. This question has led to research in multiple disciplines—especially anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and philosophy. Among the most popular and controversial theories in this area of scholarly work is the theory of linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). An often-cited "strong version" of the claim, first given by Lenneberg in 1953, proposes that language structure determines how we perceive the world. A "weaker version" of this claim posits that language structure influences the world view of speakers of a given language but does not determine it.There are two formal sides to the color debate, the universalist and the relativist. The universalist side claims that the biology of all human beings is all the same, so the development of color terminology has absolute universal constraints. The relativist side claims that the variability of color terms cross-linguistically (from language to language) points to more culture-specific phenomena. Because color exhibits both biological and linguistic aspects, it has become a deeply studied domain that addresses the relationship between language and thought. In a 2006 review of the debate Paul Kay and Terry Regier concluded that "The debate over color naming and cognition can be clarified by discarding the traditional 'universals versus relativity' framing, which collapses important distinctions. There are universal constraints on color naming, but at the same time, differences in color naming across languages cause differences in color cognition and/or perception."The color debate was made popular in large part due to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's famous 1969 study and their subsequent publishing of Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Although much on color terminology has been done since Berlin and Kay's famous study, other research predates it, including the mid-nineteenth century work of William Ewart Gladstone and Lazarus Geiger, which also predates the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, as well as the work of Eric Lenneberg and Roger Brown in 1950s and 1960s.Notion (philosophy)
A notion in philosophy is a reflection in the mind of real objects and phenomena in their essential features and relations. Notions are usually described in terms of scope and content. This is because notions are often created in response to empirical observations (or experiments) of covarying trends among variables.
Notion is the common translation for Begriff as used by Hegel in his Science of Logic (1816).Philosophical logic
Philosophical logic refers to those areas of philosophy in which recognized methods of logic have traditionally been used to solve or advance the discussion of philosophical problems. Among these, Sybil Wolfram highlights the study of argument, meaning, and truth, while Colin McGinn presents identity, existence, predication, necessity and truth as the main topics of his book on the subject.Philosophical logic also addresses extensions and alternatives to traditional, "classical" logic known as "non-classical" logics. These receive more attention in texts such as John P. Burgess's Philosophical Logic, the Blackwell Companion to Philosophical Logic, or the multi-volume Handbook of Philosophical Logic edited by Dov M. Gabbay and Franz Guenthner.Pirahã language
Pirahã (also spelled Pirahá, Pirahán), or Múra-Pirahã, is the indigenous language of the isolated Pirahã of Amazonas, Brazil. The Pirahã live along the Maici River, a tributary of the Amazon River.
Pirahã is the only surviving dialect of the Mura language, all others having become extinct in the last few centuries, as most groups of the Mura people have shifted to Portuguese. Suspected relatives, such as Matanawi, are also extinct. It is estimated to have between 250 and 380 speakers. It is not in immediate danger of extinction, as its use is vigorous and the Pirahã community is mostly monolingual.
The Pirahã language is most notable as the subject of various controversial claims; for example, that it provides evidence for linguistic relativity. The controversy is compounded by the sheer difficulty of learning the language; the number of linguists with field experience in Pirahã is very small.Stephen Levinson
Stephen C. Levinson FBA (born 6 December 1947) is a British social scientist, known for his studies of the relations between culture, language and cognition, currently one of the scientific directors of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
Levinson was educated at Bedales School and King's College, Cambridge, where he received a BA in Archaeology and Social Anthropology, and University of California Berkeley where he received a PhD in Linguistic Anthropology. He has held posts at the University of Cambridge, Stanford University and the Australian National University, and is currently Professor of Comparative Linguistics at Radboud University. Among other distinctions, he is winner of the 1992 Stirling Prize, Fellow-elect of the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, member of the Academia Europaea, and 2009 Hale Professor of the Linguistic Society of America. In 2017 Levinson received an honorary doctorate award from Uppsala University.Levinson's earliest work was with John Gumperz in interactional sociolinguistics, studying the interaction patterns in a multilingual community in India. He has written extensively on pragmatics, producing the first comprehensive textbook in the field (1983). He locates his work on pragmatics under what he has called the Gricean umbrella (2000:12ff.), a broad theory of communication that focuses on the role of conversational implicatures. His work with Penelope Brown on language structures related to formality and politeness across the world led to the publication of Politeness: Universals in Language Usage (1978/1987), a foundational work in Politeness theory.
From 1991 onward Levinson has led his own research lab, funded by the Max Planck Society and based at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Work in his Language and Cognition group (formerly Cognitive Anthropology research group) focuses on linguistic diversity and its importance to cognitive science. The group has played a pioneering role in developing the field of semantic typology and new models of language documentation. ,  In 2009, Levinson co-wrote (with Nicholas Evans) a hotly debated article contesting the existence of non-trivial linguistic universals and arguing that linguistic diversity is a crucial datum for cognitive science.
Levinson was one of the driving forces behind a re-evaluation of the notion of linguistic relativity in the early nineties, publishing (with Gumperz) an influential review of the issue (Current Anthropology, 1991) and co-editing (with Gumperz) a volume on the topic with contributions of experts from various fields (Gumperz & Levinson 1996). An influential paper with Penelope Brown titled Immanuel Kant among the Tenejapans: Anthropology as Empirical Philosophy won the 1992 Stirling Award of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. Levinson's work on language and space (Levinson & Brown 1993, Levinson 2003, 2006) demonstrated a form of linguistic relativity by showing that speakers of languages which use different spatial systems solve non-verbal spatial tasks in distinct ways. His recent work describes the relations between culture of the inhabitants of Rossel Island, and their Yélî Dnye language.