Exploring the Interplay of Language and Thought: An Overview of Linguistic Theories

March 18, 2024
Exploring the Interplay of Language and Thought: An Overview of Linguistic Theories

This French phrase, “Toute langue est fasciste” (Every language is fascist), is taken from Roland Barthes’ The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. The lecture highlights that language is viewed as a system of power that imposes rules and structures on how we think and communicate. 

From this notion, we start to question how our native language and secondary languages that we later learn will affect the way we think and perceive the world. We can also get a glimpse of how language no longer becomes just a “communication tool” but a lived experience that is expressed through the eyes of a language. 

Translating the Untranslatable podcast discusses how certain words and concepts describe a human experience with no equivalent word once you translate it into English or another language. 

To further discuss this topic, we will examine some linguistic theories and present insights from language professionals and communication experts.

Delving into the different types of linguistic theories

When you study language and its relationship to concepts and thoughts, you come to realize many philosophers and thinkers, like Plato and Aristotle, who explored the nature of language and its connection to reality. Later, Descartes and Locke would look into language's role in shaping the individual's understanding of the world.

So to answer, what is linguistic theory? To simply put, it is the study of language and its structure, use, and meaning. It examines how language is used to communicate and shape our thinking and perception of the world. Linguistic theories also explore the relationship between language and other cognitive processes, such as memory and learning.

These philosophical explorations eventually led to the development of a range of theories and approaches to language, which in turn created the field of linguistics. We have listed a couple of these famous linguistic theories. 

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity, discusses how language structure influences how speakers perceive the world. According to this hypothesis, language shapes our thoughts and perceptions, and different languages may create other cognitive structures. 

An example of how the applications of this theory are the Inuit language ( or Eskimo-Aleut languages) have multiple variations for the word snow, each reflecting a different characteristic or function of snow, which English does not have. The theory explains how snow plays a vital part in the Inuit people and culture compared to English speakers, which is why from a linguistic standpoint it has more emphasis to it. 

According to Irati Hurtado, a linguist and digital communications specialist, there are two versions of this theory: “(1) Weaker version (also known as linguistic relativity): language affects only some domains of cognition and (2) Stronger version (also known as linguistic determinism): all thought is dependent on language.” 

There are several criticisms of the Sapir-Whorf linguistic theory. One is how it oversimplifies the relationship between language and thought, suggesting that language determines thought in a one-to-one correspondence. There are some contradictions in some studies, and others have argued that it perpetuates harmful stereotypes and cultural biases that could be used to justify discrimination against certain groups. 

Linguistic determinism

Linguistic determinism is a theory that suggests that the structure of a language determines the way its speakers perceive the world. In other words, language is the primary factor that shapes our thoughts and experiences.

Although Hurtado doubts this theory, “Scientific evidence doesn’t support the stronger version of Sapir-Whorf (linguistic determinism) of the hypothesis, meaning that speakers of different languages do NOT view the world differently.” 

She’s not alone as many critics of this theory argue that the influence of language on thought is overstated and doesn’t entirely determine our perceptions of the world. They point out that people are capable of abstract thought and can think beyond the limitations of language. Furthermore, the same concept can be expressed differently in different languages, and yet still be understood by speakers of those languages.

Linguistic relativism

Linguistic relativism, also known as cultural relativity, suggests that language and culture are interdependent and that language reflects the cultural worldview of its speakers. This theory proposes that different cultures and languages have unique ways of viewing the world and that these differences are reflected in their language.

For Mounir L., a language professional, when we speak a language, immediately, it belongs to a particular culture. Our culture will profoundly affect and influence how we perceive the world.

“Many changes occur when we move from one language to another, and these changes shape our experience with the people we interact with. These changes are behavioral, linguistic, pragmatic, and contextual. For instance, when you move from one language to another, you are bound to conform to the target culture. What is acceptable in language A culture may be forbidden in language B,” He explained.

This theory also suggests that linguistic relativism, the way we think and perceive our culture and language, shapes the world. For example, different cultures have different ways of perceiving time. Some indigenous communities in North America perceived time as cyclical rather than linear, affecting their planning and scheduling approach. 

The biggest criticism of linguistic relativism is that it can lead to relativism in ethics and morality. If language shapes our worldview and there are no objective criteria for evaluating different cultural perceptions, then it can be argued that all ethical and moral systems are equally valued. It can also be seen as problematic as it overemphasizes the way language and culture play on the person's views, not considering their individual agency to generate and form beliefs and thoughts on their own. 

Linguistic universalism

Linguistic universalism is a linguist theory that suggests that all languages share common features and structures. According to this theory, certain basic linguistic concepts and categories are universal and form the foundation of all languages.

The idea of linguistic universalism stands in contrast to linguistic relativism, which emphasizes the differences between languages and cultures. Proponents of linguistic universalism argue that despite the differences in vocabulary, grammar, and syntax among different languages, there are underlying similarities that reflect universal features of the human mind.

One of the critical principles of linguistic universalism is the notion of "language universals," which are characteristics of language found in all human languages. For example, many languages distinguish between past, present, and future tenses, indicating a shared understanding of time. Additionally, many languages have similar structures for representing spatial relationships, such as using cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) to indicate location.

Another important aspect of linguistic universalism is the idea of "innate language ability," which suggests that humans are born with an innate capacity for language learning. This innate ability is believed to underlie the similarities between different languages, as well as the ease with which children can learn a language quickly.

However, the critics of this theory argue that the theory overlooks the rich diversity and complexity of human language and culture. Critics of Linguistic universalism argue that it is difficult to identify genuinely universal concepts and thought patterns. They suggest that language is deeply influenced by culture and context and that our experiences and the cultural norms and values of our communities shape how we understand and represent concepts in a language. They also argue that it is challenging to compare languages meaningfully, as each language is unique and has its internal logic and structure.

Prototype theory

Prototype theory is a theory of categorization that suggests that we categorize objects and concepts based on their resemblance to a prototype or typical example. According to this theory, prototypes are not fixed entities but dynamic and context-dependent.

For example, if someone asks you to think of a bird, you might first think of a robin or a sparrow - two common, prototypical examples of birds. However, if someone shows you a picture of a penguin or an ostrich - two less typical examples of birds - you might initially hesitate to classify them as birds because they do not match your mental image of a typical bird.

According to prototype theory, the prototype of a category is determined by the features that are most common or most salient among the examples in that category. And as such, it can be applied to a wide range of cognitive processes, including language, memory, and problem-solving. 

For example, prototype theory can help explain why certain words are more easily learned and remembered than others in the language. Words with clear, prototypical meanings are often easier to remember than words with more ambiguous or less typical meanings.

The criticism that this theory receives is that it can be too reliant on personal experiences and biases, which vary from person to person. It also doesn't consider all aspects of language and meaning, as it solely focuses on prototypes and does not consider other aspects, like grammar and syntax. 

Embodied cognition

Embodied cognition is a theory that suggests that our bodily experiences and interactions with the physical world influence our cognition and perception. According to this theory, our understanding of abstract concepts is grounded in our sensorimotor experiences, and that our bodily experiences shape our mental representations of the world.

It posits that many cognitive processes, such as perception, language, and reasoning, are inherently linked to bodily experiences and sensorimotor interactions. For example, when we understand language,  we don't just process abstract symbols. However, we also use our sensory and motor systems to create mental simulations of the concepts and actions being described. Similarly, when we reason about spatial relationships or manipulate objects, we use bodily experiences to guide our thinking and problem-solving.

As Nina Kositsky, a linguist and language testing specialist, discusses how multilingualism in any way mediates our thinking, emotions, and attitudes, she points to Lev Vygotsky, who considered language the most crucial semiotic tool that mediates our thinking. She states that human beings can only be understood as part of a culture, a society, and a history. So by extension, becoming bilingual also entails becoming bicultural.

“Becoming bilingual entails becoming bicultural, or, in other words, acquiring additional interpretive frames – complex webs of culturally embedded lexical, rhetorical, and social practices. This connection between languages and interpretive frames can explain why the shift in language can potentially lead to a shift in interpretive frames,” She explained,

Kositsky further stated, “In fact, research on bilingualism abounds in studies of interpretive frames, such as studies that utilize the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). The test involves showing bilingual/bicultural individuals a series of picture cards that depict ambiguous characters, scenes, and situations and then asking them to tell stories in their two languages. Regardless of the linguistic background of study participants, their responses revealed differences in interpretive frames that they applied to “reading” story cards.” 

Many criticize this theory because of its reductionist approach to understanding the complexity of cognition. They argue that while experiences certainly play a role in how we think, it is just one of many other factors in the cognitive process. Additionally, some critics argue that embodied cognition theory doesn't fully consider the role of culture and society in shaping our thinking and places too much emphasis on individual experience. 


What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistic theory?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity, suggests that the structure of a language influences how its speakers perceive the world. It posits that different languages lead to different cognitive structures and worldviews.

Can language determine how we think according to linguistic determinism?

Linguistic determinism proposes that the structure of a language determines its speakers' worldview. However, the article mentions that scientific evidence does not fully support this strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, indicating that speakers of different languages do not view the world in entirely different ways.

How does linguistic relativism differ from linguistic universalism?

Linguistic relativism emphasizes the influence of language and culture on one's perception of the world, suggesting that different cultures and languages lead to unique worldviews. In contrast, linguistic universalism argues that all languages share common features and structures, reflecting universal aspects of human cognition.

What is prototype theory and how does it relate to language and cognition?

Prototype theory suggests that categorization is based on resemblance to a "prototype" or typical example within a category. This theory helps explain how certain concepts or objects are more easily recognized and remembered due to their prototypical characteristics.

How does embodied cognition theory view the role of bodily experiences in shaping cognition and language?

Embodied cognition theory posits that our cognition and perception are significantly influenced by our physical experiences and interactions with the world. It suggests that understanding language and abstract concepts is grounded in sensorimotor experiences, shaping our mental representations.


We delved into various linguistic theories to shed light on how deeply interconnected Language, Culture, and Thoughts are to one another—returning to Roland Barthes’ lecture on “Toute langue est fasciste” (Every language is fascist), the limitations in freely expressing the human experience in a specific culture from one language to another show the rigidity of language. The different approaches and theories of language further exemplify this ‘oppressive’ phenomenon, Lost in Translation, and how there will always be lived experiences and feelings that will not be able to be translated properly into another language.  

The mentioned theories highlight the complex and intricate nature of language and cognition and the need to appreciate and respect the diversity of languages and cultures. Each theory provides valuable insights into the nature of language, however, there is still much to be debated and learned about the relationship between language, culture, and thought before we can find a definitive answer.

But what do you think? Comment your thoughts below.

By Clarriza Heruela

Clarriza Mae Heruela graduated from the University of the Philippines Mindanao with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, majoring in Creative Writing. Her experience from growing up in a multilingually diverse household has influenced her career and writing style. She is still exploring her writing path and is always on the lookout for interesting topics that pique her interest.



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