Why does it matter that language may be sexist, racist and so on?  Apart from the obvious point that such language is offensive, many people that the language we hear and use has a big influence on the way we think.

There are two extreme views of this issue, the universalist and the relativist.

The universalist position is that all humans share common ways of thinking, a set of basic concepts about the world which we may call conceptual primes.  One example is relative distance, the distinction between “near” and “far”.  All languages, whatever their apparent differences, will provide means of expressing these essential concepts.  According to this view, language simply reflects our thoughts.  For example, racist terms exist because people have racist attitudes.  The notion that language reflects thought is known as reflectionism.

The relativist position is the opposite of the universalist.  We rely on language to form our ideas.  Individual languages differ greatly in both lexis and grammar.  It follows that the speakers of different languages will experience and understand the world in very different ways.

This position is mainly associated with two American linguists, Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941).  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as it is usually known, is that language actually determines thought.  This theory is described as linguistic determinism

Whorf studied the language of the native American Hopi people and observed that it was “timeless“.  It lacked time adverbs and did not mark verbs for tense as we do in English.  Hopi grammar was more concerned with distinguishing between what is objective and what is subjective.  Whorf concluded that a Hopi speaker must view the world very differently from a native English speaker. 

Other studies have focused on colour words.  Some languages have more words than others for labelling colours.  Many have around a dozen basic colour terms while others have as few as four. Different languages use colour words to divide up the spectrum in different ways.  Research into the Mexican language Tarahumara, which has only one word to cover both blue and green, suggested that its speakers distinguished between these colours less well than English speakers.

More recent work has largely discredited this extreme view, however. 

Arguments against linguistic determinism

  • Even if we do not have a word or structure equivalent to one in another language, we can still find ways of expressing an idea from that language, using the words at our disposal.  For example, Australian aborigines whose native languages lack words for numbers can still learn numbers and be taught arithmetic.
  • It is doubtful whether we actually think in words.  How often have you heard someone say, “I know what I mean but I can’t put it into words”?  Some famous thinkers have claimed to rely more on mental images than language.
  • Language changes.  New words appear regularly.  Could this happen if our thinking was limited by our existing language?


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, then, is no longer accepted in its absolute form.  Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence that our thinking is influenced by language.  This can be seen as the weak version of the hypothesis

Evidence that the language we hear may influence our perception or memory

Elizabeth Loftus investigated eye witness testimony and its reliability.  How easy is it to influence a witness’s recall of an event?  She showed her subjects videos of traffic accidents and asked them to fill in a questionnaire.  However, there were different versions of the questions.  Some people were asked to estimate the speed of the vehicles “when they contacted”.  For other groups, the verb “contacted” was replaced by “hit”, “bumped”, “collided” or “smashed”.  The answers she received differed noticeably.  The more violent the verb used, the higher the estimated speed.  A week later, she asked some of her witnesses whether they had seen any broken glass.  (There had been none).  Again, the people who had been asked about cars “smashing” into each other were far more likely to say yes than those who had been asked about cars “hitting” each other.

You have probably studied persuasive language.  Rhetorical techniques such as the “power of three” are used because we see that they work. 

However, all these examples show people being influenced by the language used to represent ideas or events to them.  This is not the same thing as saying that our native language structures our ability to think.

Most linguists today accept that language and thought are interdependent.  Sexist language exists because of sexist attitudes.  But growing up in a society where such terms are current may encourage people to accept or adopt those attitudes.

How can I use all of this?

You will not be expected to explain the theory in detail but you should be able to apply it when writing about the representation of gender, race and disability. 

In particular, make sure you can explain the difference between linguistic determinism and the opposite reflectionist view of language. 

It is very useful in any essay on language and representation to refer to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, distinguishing between the original theory and the weak version more generally accepted today.


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