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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Linguistic relativity

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The central question in research on linguistic relativity, or the Whorfian hypothesis, is whether people who speak different languages think differently. The recent resurgence of research on this question can be attributed, in part, to new insights about the ways in which language might impact thought. We identify seven categories of hypotheses about the possible effects of language on thought across a wide range of domains, including motion, color, spatial relations, number, and false belief understanding. While we do not find support for the idea that language determines the basic categories of thought or that it overwrites preexisting conceptual distinctions, we do find support for the proposal that language can make some distinctions difficult to avoid, as well as for the proposal that language can augment certain types of thinking. Further, we highlight recent evidence suggesting that language may induce a relatively schematic mode of thinking. Although the literature on linguistic relativity remains contentious, there is growing support for the view that language has a profound effect on thought. WIREs Cogni Sci 2011 2 253–265 DOI: 10.1002/wcs.104

Figure 1.

Classes and subclasses of hypotheses on how language might affect thought.

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Figure 2.

In linguistic determinism, the relationship between language and thought is tight, while the relationship between thought and the world is loose. Research in the cognitive sciences suggests the opposite pattern: a loose relationship between language and thought, and a relatively tight relationship between thought and the world.

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Figure 3.

Series of gears in which the first turns clockwise. In which direction will the last gear turn?

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