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 that idea.


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 Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, US, who has tested babies’ abilities to distinguish between different numerical quantities. “Whether language actually allows you to have new thoughts is a very controversial issue.”


Peter Gordon, the psychologist at Columbia University in New York City who carried out the experiment, does not claim that his finding holds for all kinds of thought. “There are certainly things that we can think about that we cannot talk about. But for numbers I have shown that a limitation in language affects cognition,” he says.

“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 pile.


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.


The Pirahă 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 Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. “But this work will spark a great deal of discussion.”