Linguistic Determinism –
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is
fundamentally that the language you use is responsible for shaping (i.e.
determining) the kinds of thoughts that you can have. Essentially, if your
language doesn’t have a word for a given idea or concept then you can’t think
What’s the evidence?
Hunter-gatherers from the Pirahă tribe, whose language only contains words for the
numbers one and two, were unable to reliably tell the difference between four
objects placed in a row and five in the same configuration, revealed the study.
Experts agree that the startling
result provides the strongest support yet for the controversial hypothesis that
the language available to humans defines our thoughts. So-called “linguistic
determinism” was first proposed in 1950 but has been hotly debated ever since.
“It is a very surprising and very
important result,” says Lisa Feigenson, a
developmental psychologist at
Peter Gordon, the psychologist at
“One, two, many”
The language, Pirahă,
is known as a “one, two, many” language because it only contains words for
“one” and “two”for all other numbers, a single word
for “many” is used. “There are not really occasions in their daily lives where
the Pirahă need to count,” explains Gordon.
In order to test if this prevented
members of the tribe from perceiving higher numbers, Gordon set seven Pirahă a variety of tasks. In the simplest, he sat opposite
an individual and laid out a random number of familiar objects, including
batteries, sticks and nuts, in a row. The Pirahă were
supposed to respond by laying out the same number of objects from their own
For one, two and three objects,
members of the tribe consistently matched Gordon’s pile correctly. But for four
and five and up to ten, they could only match it approximately, deviating more
from the correct number as the row got longer.
also failed to remember whether a box they had been shown seconds ago had four
or five fish drawn on the top. When Gordon’s colleagues tapped on the floor
three times, the Pirahă were able to imitate this
precisely, but failed to mimic strings of four of five taps.
Gordon says this is the first
convincing evidence that a language lacking words for certain concepts could
actually prevent speakers of the language from understanding those concepts.However, other scientists are far from convinced. Feigenson points out that there could be other reasons,
aside from pure language, why the Pirahă could not
distinguish accurately for higher numbers including not being used to dealing
with large numbers or set such tasks.
“The question remains highly
controversial,” says psychologist Randy Gallistel of