39 Linguistic Relativity

Language and thought tend to influence one another in a dual, cyclical relationship.


  • Characterize the relationship between language and thought in humans


    • The theory of linguistic relativity states that the structure of a language influences the way its speakers conceptualize the world.
    • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis discusses the grammatical structure of a particular language and how it influences its speakers’ perceptions of the world.
    • Cognitive-behavioral theory claims that what people think impacts what they say and do.
    • According to behavioral economics, people are more likely to believe an event is true if it is described vividly.


  • semanticsThe study of the relationship between words and their meanings.
  • cognitive distortionExaggerated and irrational thoughts, believed to perpetuate psychological disorders.
It is easy to wonder which comes first, the thought or the language. Does an individual first think of an idea or did speaking, hearing, or reading about an idea spur a thought? Can thought exist without language? You might as well ask which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Language and thought (or “cognition“) tend to interact in a dual and cyclical relationship, a theory known overall as linguistic relativity. What one thinks becomes what one communicates, and what one communicates can lead to new thoughts. There are several different theories that aim to discuss the relationship between cognition and language, and each will be discussed in this chapter.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the grammatical structure of a person’s language influences the way he or she perceives the world. The hypothesis has been largely abandoned by linguists as it has found at best very limited experimental support, and it does not hold much merit in psychology. For instance, studies have not shown that speakers of languages lacking a subjunctive mood (such as Chinese) experience difficulty with hypothetical problems. The weaker version of this theory does have some merit, however. For example, different words mean different things in different languages; not every word in every language has a one-to-one exact translation in a different language. Because of these small but important differences, using the wrong word within a particular language (because you believe it to mean something else) can have dire consequences.

The canonical example of studying linguistic relativity is in the area of color naming. Sapir and Whorf, as believers in linguistic relativity, would believe that people whose languages partition the color spectrum along different lines actually perceive colors in a different way. However, recent research has supported the idea that human color perception is governed more by biological and physical rather than linguistic constraints, regardless of how many color words a language has.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

According to the theory that drives cognitive-behavioral therapy, the way a person thinks has a huge impact on what she or he says and does. Founded by Aaron T. Beck, this school of thought discusses the interplay among emotion, behavior, language, and thought. Since internal dialogue is a form of language, the way we speak to ourselves can influence our daily lives. Problems with our internal dialogue, known as cognitive distortions, can lead to negative behaviors or serious emotional problems.

Behavioral Economics

The field of behavioral economics studies the effect of psychological and cognitive factors on individuals’ behavior in an economic context. In this field (and others), researchers have shown that the more vividly an event is described, the more likely people will believe it is true. Thus, people will draw different conclusions and make different choices about a situation based on the language used to describe that situation.


Language and thought

What a person thinks (thought) has a direct impact on what that person says (language), and vice versa.


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