Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Linguistic Determination

Linguistic determination is the argument that language directly effects that way that people think about and see the world. Linguistic determination is also known as the Whorfian hypothesis or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Kay & Kempton, 1984). Whorf provides the example of the Eskimo words for snow. The Eskimo people are inhabitants of the Arctic. Whereas in the English language there is only one word for snow the Eskimo language has many words for snow. Whorf argues that this language for snow allows the Eskimo people to "see" snow differently than speakers of other languages who do not have as many words for snow. That is, Eskimo people see subtle differences in snow that other people do not.

Researchers have studied color perception across different linguistic groups to find support for the Whorfian hypothesis (Berlin & Kay, 1969; Miller & Johnson-Laird, 1976). The evidence indicates that people of all cultures perceive colour in the same way. The tentative conclusion is that language does not determine the way that people think. It is possible that language, while not determining the way that people think may influence the way that people think. Exactly how language might influence thought is yet unclear. Linguistic determination is also at the centre of the claim that the structure of some natural languages makes counterfactual reasoning difficult (Bloom, 1981).


  1. Berlin, B., & Kay, P. (1969). Basic color terms. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  2. Bloom, A. (1981). The Linguistic Shaping Of Thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  3. Kay, P., & Kempton, W. (1984). What Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. American Anthropologist, 86(1), 65-79.
  4. Miller, G. A., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1976). Language And Perception. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

(Revised February 2010)