The new linguistic relativism: Guy Deutscher in the NYTimes
How does language affect thought and perception? It’s a question we’ve looked at here at on a number of occasions, but Prof. Guy Deutscher, offers a nice general survey of the current state of play in the research over at The New York Times in ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think?’ Posts on language tend to attract a lot of traffic, so I’d encourage you to take a look.

Prof. Guy Deutscher
Prof. Deutscher is an accomplished linguist, who has written a number of general works as well as specialist works, including research on Akkadian, the language of ancient Babylon and Assyria. Deutscher is honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester, and the article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, to be published by Metropolitan Books.

Deutscher lays out a number of different areas of research that suggest language affects thought, especially in the areas of gender, spatial perception, time, and colour perception, and suggests some areas where profound linguistic differences offer tantalizing possibilities for studying the subtle ways that linguistic practice can influence cognition.

Although I feel Deutscher is unreasonably harsh on Whorf, in part because some contemporary understandings of Benjamin Whorf paint him as a more radical linguistic determinist than I find him to be, the research Deutscher discusses is well worth considering, and it’s a nifty piece to share with our regular readers.

Was Whorf ever the ‘loony fringe’?

The one thing that turns me off to Duetscher’s writings is his pretty harsh bashing of Benjamin Whorf, who, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting anthropological linguists. The tendency to blame a theorist for all of the excesses committed in his (or her) name helps to give academic writing some of its vitriolic, bi-polar character, in which theorists go from being excessively praised (not every good idea can be linked to your favourite theorist) to inordinately vilified (if our intellectual ancestors were truly as dumb and unbalanced as we sometimes make them sound in straw arguments, they would have been running into walls or getting irremediably lost trying to get for work to their homes).

For example, Duetscher suggests that Whorf argued:

Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). …

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute.

Both of those last two statements seem to me to be overly extreme; linguistic determinism never really went away in anthropology, although there have been different variants, some of the a lot stronger and more emphatic than others. I know that Wikipedia says that Berlin and Kay’s work on colour terminology left the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis ‘completely discredited,’ and it seems to be a dominant motif in some corners of linguistics to say that Whorf was theoretically dead and buried, but I think that this, too, is a pretty pronounced over-statement as the idea of linguistic determinism seems to have shifted and adapted even if one of its primary proponents work fell into some disrepute.

(In fact, Berlin and Kay’s research has also come in for a fair amount of criticism since it was originally published, although it still stands as one of the great cross-cultural research projects ever carried out. You know you’re an academic when you don’t care who wins the argument because you just enjoy the research on both sides.)

The idea that language is essential to understanding a group’s worldview, that there were concepts in some languages inexpressible in others, hardly vanished for decades, as Duetscher and others suggest. An interest in cultural patterns of categorization has been long standing in cognitive anthropology, and most cultural anthropologists assumed that ethnographic understanding demanded some knowledge of local languages.

In fact, one could argue that the semiotic and hermeneutical moves in anthropology and a number of other social sciences assumed the existentially shaping power of symbolic systems, an enlargement but extension of linguistic determinism. Even though Whorf may have fallen out of favour, other versions of linguistic determinism-like thinking still stood their ground (ideological determinism, hegemonic determinism, symbolic determinism, if you will).

One of the reasons that Whorf gets dumped on, in my opinion, is that Steven Pinker really seemed to have it in for him, writing that linguistic relativism is ‘is wrong, all wrong’ in The Language Instinct, going on to say that believing thought and language are the same thing was a ‘conventional absurdity’ (1994: 57). Daniel Casanato (2008: 64-65) suggests that Pinker collapses the difference between Whorf’s argument – language affects thought – and the argument that language is thought, leading to a persistent confusion in Pinker’s critique.

Strong versions of linguistic determinism are really hard to defend and notoriously tricky to demonstrate, especially because causation is difficult to determine; it’s hard to answer the question, ‘Does language cause cognitive differences?’ because it’s very hard to create conditions where other factors can be controlled (see, for example, Casanato’s critique of the work of Peter Gordon and Gordon’s response in Science, 18 March 2005).

I don’t want to get too bogged down in this though because I want to briefly describe the research that Deutscher is referring to when he discusses how language can influence thought.

Re-examining language and thought

Fortunately, Deutscher gets beyond the critique of Whorf, and his New York Times article discusses a number of different pockets of research where Whorfian-like thought has again become convincing to scholars. New research is showing that language can influence perception subtly in a number of ways.

One example is the gendering of nouns, something which English does not do, but other languages do so extensively. Languages with gendered nouns or without gender neutral ways of saying things – Deutscher offers the example of being able to say that you had dinner with ‘a neighbour’ and leave the person’s sex ambiguous – oblige people to communicate information that can be omitted in English. In contrast, English does oblige speakers to definitively establish when an event happened due to verb tenses; Chinese does not. As Deutscher explains:

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

As an example, Deutscher briefly discusses how gendered nouns bias the way that people think about various nouns. Psychological experiments have shown that, when asked to assign adjectives to various inanimate objects or even give voices to animated versions of everyday objects, people who speak languages that gender these objects demonstrate biases in their associations. If the same object is feminine in one language and masculine in another (like ‘bridge’ in German and Spanish respectively), speakers will be influenced in the way that they think about these objects.

Deutscher wonders in his article whether these demonstrable lower level biases might wind up having higher order effects. Does gender associations with objects affect the way that they are designed, for example? ‘Do they shape tastes, fashions, habits and preferences in the societies concerned?’ It’s a good question (or set of questions), but as Daniel Casanato points out, it would be hard to determine whether it was really the linguistic property that was affecting the taste, fashion, habit or preference, or whether some other causal mechanism or relation might be discerned.

Deutscher argues that the most powerful evidence for language influencing perception comes from the study of egocentric and geographic orientations in different groups of people. Whenever we use directions like ‘left’ and ‘right,’ ‘forward’ and ‘backward,’ we are using egocentric spatial reference or deixis. The speaker or person listening can be used as the point of reference, and space extrapolated from the position and direction of the point of reference. What is ‘left’ will change as we move because ‘left’ stays with us, not with the space itself.

In contrast, a language might not have egocentric directions, like the Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland (yet another reason not to be blasé about language extinction). In Guugu Yimithirr, people can only speak with reference to cardinal directions – north, south, east, west are the English versions – as they cannot say ‘left’ or ‘right.’ Languages that primarily depend upon geographic space encourage people to develop a sense of direction that a person from a more egocentric language-speaking community might find extraordinary.

Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

Here, Deutscher’s explanation is not simply the language, but the habit of being constantly aware of cardinal direction demanding by the language: ‘studies have shown that children in such societies start using geographic directions as early as age 2 and fully master the system by 7 or 8. With such an early and intense drilling, the habit soon becomes second nature, effortless and unconscious.’

Deutscher’s discussion of how this permanent awareness of geographical directions affects a range of skills, including how people learn movements, recall events, and even make gestural references is excellent, and worth the effort of reading the article in and of itself. Deutscher goes on to discuss recent findings that language affects thought and perception in other areas, as well, including colour perception, particularly ironic in light of the role of colour perception research in ‘discrediting’ Whorf in the first place.

For example, Daniel Casanato of Stanford, in a 2008 article in Language Learning, returned to the classic Whorf case study of how languages shaped different experiences of time, a topic that I discussed in a recent post, ‘Life without language.’ The irony is that Whorf’s treatment of time perception was one of the things he was most vilified for, treated as though it was not possible that time perception could be anything other than universal.

Deutscher’s piece is great – engaging and information – but I still can’t get comfortable with the ceremonial attacks on the intellectual ancestors. I’ll attach a few links below where you can find more discussion of the issues, but please feel free to suggest some more in the comments section, especially if you’ve posted on the subject.

Previous posts on Whorf and linguistic relativism:

A softer ‘neo-Whorfianism’
Two languages, one brain and theory of mind
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right… sort of?

For more on Guy Deutscher:

Guy Deutscher, ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Clichés’ a New York Times Op-Ed piece from 2005.

The Google Books site for Prof. Deutscher’s book, The Unfolding of Language.

The American Scientist has an interview with Guy Deutscher by Amos Esty.

For more on linguistic relativism

How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think? [6.12.09] By Lera Boroditsky on Edge.

On Guugu Yimithirr and spatial perception, the work of Stephen C. Levinson is crucial. His homepage at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is here. (Papers available for download here, too.)
Levinson at Scientific Commons is here.

One, two, many — or ‘small size’, ‘large size’, ’cause to come together’?
Mark Lieberman’s comments on the Pirahã research of Peter Gordon at Language Log (going back to 2004)

Languagehat discusses work on the Pirahã in PIRAHA AND WHORF.

You can find many of Daniel Casanato’s papers on his website.


Casasanto, Daniel. (2005). Crying “Whorf” Science, 307 (5716), 1721-1722 DOI: 10.1126/science.307.5716.1721

Casasanto, D. (2008). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic Differences in Temporal Language and Thought Language Learning, 58, 63-79 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2008.00462.x

Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: Harper.

Whorf, Benjamin L. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, edited by J. B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

19 thoughts on “The new linguistic relativism: Guy Deutscher in the NYTimes

    1. I am a little confused here aren’t Deutscher and Saphir – Whorf basically saying the same the same thing?

      What does Deutscher really think about the Saphir- Whorf hypothesis ? What did the critics find wrong with this?

  1. Guy Deutscher’s geographic/directionality example might be making a different point than he believes. Is there good evidence that this is a language/cognition issue rather than a culture/cognition issue? Let me make the point using a different ethnographic example.

    A local ESL teacher found some time ago that her Puerto Rican students always gave directions using socially relevant location markers.

    The ESL teacher, when asked for directions to a local grocery store, would use typical middle class Anglo directions: take Smith Drive half a mile, turn right on Center Street, take the second left, which is Vernon Place, and the store is about 3 blocks down. She’d get blank stares from her students.

    She noticed that her Puerto Rican ESL students would give very different directions to the same place: You know Jimmy’s? Go down the street there, past the Embassy Flea Market, by Tony’s. The grocery store is across from the hair dresser that Maria likes.

    Two different ways of thinking about the geography of an environment (for simplicity sake I’ll call them the physical environment versus the social environment), but arguably the differences are not “linguistic” as much as cultural. This had me wondering about the Aboriginal examples that Deutscher presents, and the implication that the use of cardinal points is a “language” issue – I’m not so sure. Language is used to refer to “the hair dresser that Maria likes,” but is this consequently a language/cognition issue?

    1. I elicited a text from the Ewe consultant in the Linguistic Field Work course I took by asking her to give me directions from her place to campus. She immediately said, “We don’t give directions the way white people do.” She then went on to outline the navigation via landmarks vs. navigation via the grid distinction you are making. Neither really has anything to do with the compass rose.

      The lexicon of English identifies both cardinal and relative directions. English speakers who are not geographers, thru-hikers, or service persons probably only use the latter, but the point is that their language offers them the resources to do the former. What Deutscher is asking you to imagine is being a speaker of a language in which your only choice—which is to say, not a choice at all—was the former.

      1. I am aware of what Deutscher is asking me to imagine, but wondered (a) is this ethnographically correct? Do speakers of such languages really lack, utterly lack, any comparable vocabulary, and (2) if so, is he reversing the causal arrows a bit: he assumes that language has the causal role, when there are many examples of lexical gaps for culturally irrelevant concepts. I have no axe to grind with his position, just a level of curiosity about whether linguists foreground language where anthropologists might foreground culture.

      2. I am aware of what Deutscher is asking me to imagine, but wondered (a) is this ethnographically correct? Do speakers of such languages really lack, utterly lack, any comparable vocabulary[?]

        It seems to me that pro-linguistic relativity conclusions face questions about the quality of the data set upon which they draw at a higher rate than do other anthropological and linguistic studies. I wonder what that’s indicative of?

  2. “One of the reasons that Whorf gets dumped on, in my opinion, is that Steven Pinker really seemed to have it in for him, writing that linguistic relativism is ‘is wrong, all wrong’ in The Language Instinct, going on to say that believing thought and language are the same thing was a ‘conventional absurdity’ (1994: 57). Daniel Casanato (2008: 64-65) suggests that Pinker collapses the difference between Whorf’s argument – language affects thought – and the argument that language is thought, leading to a persistent confusion in Pinker’s critique.”

    – I absolutely agree with you.
    And one of Pinker’s arguments to debunk Whorf’s interpretation of the Hopi notions of time and space and the principle of relativity is that Whorf was “an inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company and amateur scholar of Native American languages”, without PhD in linguistics. In my opinion, Whorf’s achievements in the field and the ideas he generated far surpassed those produced by many ‘real linguists’. If this matter of qualifications were one of the main ‘scientific’ flaws of Whorf’s ideas, it would be laughable. But there are more ‘scientific’ criticisms of (and unscientific attacks on) Whorf’s work, e.g., when Pinker writes scathingly: “no one really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims, but his limited, badly analyzed sample of Hopi speech and his long-term leanings towards mysticism must have helped” (1994/2000, 63).

  3. I found some interesting ideas in this. As a language study dilettante I had suspected that culture/thought patterns/languages are somehow interconnected with each other but this gave me some good food for thought.

  4. Although I have an M.A. and B.A. in Linguistics, I left a Linguistics Ph.D. program and pursued a Ph.D. in Anthropology instead. My early degrees in LInguistic came from a school in which the study of linguistics was interdisciplinary and most of my classes were taken through the Anthropology. I provide this introduction because I find that linguists with no background in Anthrhopology dismiss the ideas of Whorf too easily and interpret them too dramatically. And scholars like Pinker and Deutscher go further by yanking Whorf and his ideas out of historical context and placing them in the present.

    Not only does recent research support the basic premises of Whorf’s ideas about the language/culture connection, but cognitive studies, especially by people like Lakoff, Westin, and others, demonstrate a strong cognitive connection between language and culture. Earlier, Hymes’ and Baumann’s works demonstrated a similar connection between language and culture in the examination of the entire context of a speech act.

    So when scholars dismiss Whorf’s ideas about language and culture as if they’re a highly contagious and deadly disease, it makes me wonder about their critical thinking skills.

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