Language and culture: A reciprocal relationship


Human beings do not live in the object world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built on the language habits of the group.. .. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir, 1921, p. 75)

Is our perception determined by the language that we use, that we have learned as our mother tongue? In the aforementioned quote, Edward Sapir states exactly this: There is no reality but the one we perceive, employ-ing the forms and interpretations that our language offers. This implies that language is not only a "means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection", in particular not simply a tool to transmit information, as in the Shannon-Weaver model of communication (Weaver & Shannon 1963).

While Sapir focuses on the way the "real world" exists due to our perception, the idea includes that the way we think (our cognition) is shaped by language, making in return our behaviour determined by language - thus shaping the image of a social group, of a society, of a culture. Taking notice of this hypothesis, known in literature as the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" (Chandler 1994, after Sapir's student Benjamin Lee Whorf) or "linguistic relativity" (Boroditsky 2003) the arising questions are about the relationships between language, perception, cognition, society and culture. This essay cannot discuss, let alone answer all of this complex set of questions, but it will try to point out some thoughts approaching it.

In order to understand Sapir's argumentation, several concepts need to be clarified. The first is the level of social group at which he thinks his theory applies. He talks about "society", "group" and "community", but for which kind of groups of people does it actually make sense? This is important because the only way to verify the hypothesis would be to compare two different groups, their languages and their way of thinking. Obviously, Sapir does not talk about the influence of the presence of language at all on human thought, as no human is entirely uninfluenced by language - this question would be of a purely philosophical nature. In-stead, the words "society", "group" and "community" refer to different sizes of social groups. Could this be extended to multiple societies, using languages from one language family, or to different subgroups of a soci-ety, e.g. regional, professional or age groups? As Simona said, these smaller groups into which society is di-vided define their own sub-language by reinventing or modifying the language of their society, and the hypo-thesis of Sapir would also be valid for these sub-languages. I believe that whatever hypothesis applies to dif-ferent societies and their languages, it should be adoptable to the other levels, such as language families or varieties of one language (such as dialects or sociolects). Obviously, the degree of common (as opposed to differing) language forms that is present at each of these levels is directly reflected by the degree of common (and differing) concepts in human perception and cognition.

The second concept to discuss is the properties of the language that are said to determine thought. Sapir talks about "language habits" that "predispose certain choices of interpretation". This seems to refer to the vocabulary of the language as it is employed by the specific group. However, subsequently to Sapir, the hy-pothesis was altered in order to refer to grammatical structures of language that should determine the way of thinking in the people using it. Perlovsky (2009) suggests to see the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the context of language emotionalities: According to him, the concepts of a language are represented by words, meanwhile the emotionality is reflected in its grammar. Another aspect depicted by George Lakoff (1987) is that the cat-egories in which we think are represented by the metaphors that we use in our language. In my opinion, the idea of language emotionality is very interesting and this corresponds to what I believe is the most important influence of language on thought and thus culture. Meanwhile, I would not limit emotionality to the gram-mar, but I also see the intonation and the choice of words as emotional. In the end, I would say that every aspect of language also has an emotional part, and the remaining question is which properties actually do have a deterministic influence on the way the users of the language think. I would like to call this view of a language, involving concepts and emotionality, the character of the language.

So of what kind are the relationships between language, perception, cognition, society and culture? In this essay, I do not clearly separate between perception and cognition on the one hand, nor between society and culture on the other hand. The relationship between the individual human being, his perception and cogni-tion, and the society and its culture is not the main topic of this essay. I generally follow the idea that a soci-ety consists of its members, making its culture an image of the way of thinking of the human beings that be-long to it. This makes any influence that language may have on an individual's thought relevant for the soci-ety and its culture. When trying to find differences between human beings, we always see them to represent their social groups and generalize the findings to the group, i.e. for a specific language to the society speak-ing this language. It might sometimes be more appropriate to speak of a direct relation between society and language, but it should be clear that this relation is only real through the members of the society, the speakers of the language.

It is evident that a language and its speakers with their societies and cultures are not independent one from the other. This may seem trivial, but it already defers simple models of language, like the aforemen-tioned technical model by Shannon and Weaver. Actually, some scientists like S. Pinker (1994) think that lan-guage and thought are independent, because handled by different areas of the brain.

Simona brought up the example that the language we learn in school is not identical to the everyday lan-guage that is spoken by the people - putting the language into a neutral form that fits for a textbook can not get across some aspects that could be seen to relate to culture. For example, German language has words for "Mrs." ("Frau") and "Miss" ("Frulein"), but the latter is not used anymore as a result of the feminist move-ment aiming for emancipation. Another well-known example (the origin of which is not clearly known) is about Inuit words for snow: Apparently, Inuit languages know a much higher number of words for snow than, for example, English. This is claimed to be due to the importance of snow for the Inuit people, enfor-cing the need to identify different kinds of something that is not nearly as important in other cultures where one word is sufficient.

The same dependency can be perceived for social groups and the varieties of a language that they employ. Simona pointed out what she called a "chain" relationship: The language habits that somebody has - for ex-ample, the vocabulary he uses might have a tendency to vulgarisms or violent words - determines the way he is perceived by others. This, on return, determines how these "others" treat the person, which might in the end lead to the speaker adapting to the treatment, leading to even stronger use of these language habits, and to a behaviour reflecting the vocabulary indirectly. This can make the speaker become member of a particu-lar social group due to his use of language. Another example Simona brought up was about the language used by professional groups: Within a professional group, a language making reference to the professional domain prevails. For example, computer scientists refer to computer terms very often - even when talking about entirely different things, expressions like flash drive, RAM, hard disk, ... may occur. People not famili-ar with the domain, possibly coming from a different professional area, will not be able to understand this.

However, stating that there is a dependency between language and thought or language and culture is not enough, as it does not define in which way the dependency is directed nor which extent it has. With a nave approach, the above-mentioned example of "Frau" and "Frulein" in German language suggests that lan-guage is formed by the society, as a change in the culture led to a change in the language. The same logic holds for the Inuit words for snow. This stands in contrast to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claiming exactly the opposite.

Chandler (2009) distinguishes between "mould theories", meaning that language is the mould for thoughts, i.e. that language determines thought, and "cloak theories", saying that language is the "dress of thought", i.e. thought determines language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, obviously, falls into the former cat-egory.

It is important that the argumentation about the influence of language on thought and perception remains not merely hypothetical, but that it can be validated in experiments. However, to find evidence about lan-guage influencing thought at all is not as trivial as it might seem - as Hunt and Agnoli (1991) state, this weak form of the hypothesis is "so vague that it is unprovable". This claim is strengthened by Boroditsky (2003) who lists studies evaluating the weak hypothesis, as they do not have a clear common result - they are di-vided into those affirming the hypothesis and those rejecting it.

Hunt and Agnoli (1991) use models of cognition to explain the influence of language on cognition, providing measurable values that can "indicate ways in which thought can be influenced by cultural vari-ations in the lexical, syntactical, semantic and pragmatic aspects of language".

Boroditsky (2003) gives an overview about the empirical research conducted in the field. By not trying to prove the global hypothesis of linguistic relativity, but rather looking at different ways of seeing the world in different cultures in a clearly defined domain, the effects of language on thought could be proven for several aspects of human cognition.

Apparently, the nave approach mentioned above is not enough, instead the results of cognitive linguistics research finally show evidence that there is a dependency of thought on language. However, this dependency can only be proven for specific phenomena, which might be in the nature of the relationship: From my point of view, there is no reason to limit the relationship to one direction. Instead, I would see it as reciprocal: Yes, language shapes thought, but thought - or culture, or society - also shapes language. The tight relationship between language and culture is expressed by what I call the character of the language, being a representa-tion of the emotionality, the lifestyle of a society.

Actually, Chandler (1994) also reports that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its extreme form is rejected by most scientists (except some "polemicists"), but he sees broad academic consensus about a moderate form. This "moderate Whorfianism" weakens the "determinism" of language on thought to "influence", the prob-lems and approaches to find evidence of which have been discussed above. As well, it also includes the idea of a "two-way process", such that thought also influences language - just as in the reciprocal model that I prefer. Finally, this consensus also considers the differences between language varieties of one language, as well as the social context (rather than linguistic structures) of a language in order to explain the language-thought relationship. This corresponds to the ideas discussing the level where the dependency comes into play, in the beginning of this essay. Therefore, I could well see myself as a moderate Whorfianist, seeing language and thought as being in a reciprocal relationship. My idea of the character of language would need further investigation though - in order to find out how it is represented and how it relates to society and culture.


  • Boroditsky, L. (2003). Linguistic Relativity. Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science (pp. 917-922). London: Macmillan.
  • Chandler, D. (1994). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Aberystwyth University. Retrieved December 21, 2009, from
  • Hunt, E., & Agnoli, F. (1991). The Whorfian Hypothesis: A Cognitive Psychology Perspective. Psychological Review, 98(3), 377-389.
  • Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
  • Perlovsky, L. (2009). Language and emotions: Emotional Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Neural Networks, 22(2009), 518-526.
  • Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.
  • Weaver, W., & Shannon, C. (1963). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois.
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