Linguistic Relativity

Theory Development

The idea of linguistic relativity has actually been around since the late seventeenth century.  However, it was not until the studies of linguistic anthropologists, Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf, that the modern theory of linguistic relativity was introduced.  Whorf first began studying linguistics at Yale University in 1931 under Sapir, and he continued to study anthropology and linguistics into the early 1940s.  Yet, Whorf died before he could finish proving his theories, and Sapir’s and Whorf’s hypothesis is sometimes in question.


John Lucy’s Linguistic Relativity (1997) defines the linguistic relativity theory as “the particular language we speak influences the way we think about reality” (Lucy, 1997). This theory, in summary, is essentially how language influences thought, and that people experience reality in different ways.  The theory of linguistic relativity, sometimes known as Whorf-hypothesis, incorporates three different levels: the semiotic, structural, and functional.  The semiotic is basically how speaking one language can influence thinking, while the structural level is how speaking one or more language influences thinking.  The functional level is a little different in that it incorporates simply using language to influences thinking.  Many different hypotheses for the theory of linguistic relativity have been thought of, but there really are only three common characteristics that they all have.  “They all claim that certain properties of a given language have consequences for patterns of thought about reality” (Lucy, 1997).  The common property of language is that it will vary in all aspects of speech.  Another common property is that thought may be a cause of perception and attention.  The final claim is that reality involves everyday experiences.  These three characteristics are connected by two main ideas, that language involves interpretation and that it can influence thoughts about reality.