Linguistic relativism: science fact or science fiction?

I have an axe to grind.

I, like most rational adults, became fascinated when I heard of the theory of linguistic relativity through a friend who was studying psychology. At the time, I was obsessed with linguistics, theories of perception and science fiction: a triple threat that made me quite susceptible to believing that this particular theory was, in fact, the “bees knees”.

However, after closer reading and a little sliver of critical thinking, I began to see the problems innate to such a reality altering idea.

Allow me to burst your bubble.

But what is linguistic relativism?

Have you ever heard someone making the claim that some indigenous or first nation cultures don’t have a word for time? Does this mean their perception of chronology is different?

This juicy brain-buster was given to us by famed linguist and anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf within his treatise “Science and Linguistics”. This hypothesis was born out of Whorf’s research into the Native American’s who populated North-Eastern Arizona – known as the Hopi – who claim to have no word, nor grammatical constructions for depicting time.

First, as discussed excellently within this guardian article, there should be a few red flags waving at you right now. By this reckoning, we’re assuming that simply because another culture doesn’t prescribe to the same speech as another, that they are having a distinctly different subjective experience. This is more than a little exclusionary and implies that some people are unable to achieve the same thoughts as you purely because they have developed in different cultural settings.

But, let’s assume that this isn’t a glaring problem first and foremost, this theory fails to really draw one’s attention once you initially remember that one can learn another language throughout the course of one’s life. I can speak a little French after going on exchange: does this mean my base perceptions are changed when I begin to think in a language that is lauded as being more romantic by nature? I can wholeheartedly say that my romantic skills still leave a lot to be desired in that instance…

the confusing concept of time. source: Kata Tölgyesi on flickrr

If it’s so easy to discredit this idea, then why did you think it was the “bees-knees”

This theory does have the potential to unlock so many good narratives. It has essentially been at the heart of various epochs of science fiction: from Orwell’s depiction of the alienation of Newspeak in 1984 to Asimov exploring the differences in human/robotic perception in Bicentennial Man.

This has actually come back in vogue as recent release ‘Arrival’ boasts a return to this concept by essentially following the same logic that Whorf did in regards to the notion of time. It’s a shame its done so poorly. So, so poorly.

Though, let’s admit to ourselves that the premise of how our objective perception of reality could shift based on language centres of our brains being stimulated in different fashions is pretty neat. The thought that there are wholly different observations of time going on within different cultures on the planet makes my mind race with possibilities.

It’s a shame that such a theory is inherently exclusive and, as has often been pointed out, wrong.




While this has been a very brief foray into the possibilities of linguistic relativity, it is a rather rich field of study. A decent amount of research and discussion can be found here.