Linguistic Relativity


The movie Arrival was released one year ago today! While the film was rightfully applauded and critically acclaimed, not enough credit was given to how the plot incorporated nonlinear orthography and linguistic relativity. Although some liberties were taken with the specifics of how these concepts worked in the story, the underlying ideas have a firm basis in reality!

The Basics

For those who may not already be familiar,  linguistic relativity, (also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) simply states that “the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristics of the culture in which it is spoken”. This has stemmed two different interpretations; Linguistic Relativity (the idea that languages are one of many factors) and Linguistic Determinism (the idea that language is the deciding or primary factor of how a person thinks).

While the determinism interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been largely abandoned for lack of reliable evidence, linguistic relativity has proven to be a compelling topic discussed among academics across all walks of life.


Benjamin Whorf is largely credited with pioneering this field of study when, in the early 1900’s, he studied Native American languages and noticed the Hopi language grammaticalized concepts of time in a unique way. This led him to many theories surrounding the potential implications on how native speakers perceived time.1 His specific conclusions have been fiercely contested, but this debate sparked a much larger dialogue and countless investigations into what extent language has on the way humans think and perceive the world around them.

Brain Structure & Activity

Time for truth-overload: Language ability can physically alter an individual’s brain! A 2012 Swedish MRI study found that learning a new language improves cortical thickness2- a mass of neurons responsible for thought, language, consciousness, and memory (among other things). The increased size is associated with better memory and sharp thinking, especially in old age. This study also revealed higher language skills are linked to growth of the hippo-campus and areas of the cerebral cortex. Further research shows that bilingualism helps delay the onset of dementia by more than 4 years!3 The benefits of being bilingual do not end there, another study revealed that individuals who switch between languages frequently throughout the day are better at balancing multiple tasks than their monolingual peers.4

Hearing different types of words can also activate specific areas of the brain. Spectral analysis of Electroencephalographic (EEG) data from bilingual native Hopi children demonstrated that the “active language” being used stimulates brain activity in different areas. When hearing a story in English they use more of the left side of their brain, and when hearing the same story in Navajo (which tends to be more verb focused) the right hemisphere of their brains was more active.5 Other research reviewing brain activity reacting to nouns, verbs, and class ambiguous words (drink, alert, block, etc.) concluded that both the context of a word and the type of words used stimulate activity in separate sections of the brain.6


While language ability can physically change and activate different portions of the brain, cultures are also affected by the way their native language is structured. One example is the direction of writing. English is written from left to right, while Japanese is traditionally written from top to bottom and right to left. Lena Boroditsky, a leading researcher in linguistic affects on culture, published her findings that the direction of writing influences the way time is visualized.7 A separate study illustrates that those speaking Aymara think of the past as being in front of them, and the future behind them.8 This is consistent with their language, as Aymara speakers us the same word for “front” (nayra) as they do for the “past”, and the word for “back” (qhipa) is also used for “future”. It has been additionally noted this way of thinking makes sense in a more philosophical way; we have a clear view of our past, but not the future. 

These were all interesting observations, but the real fun began when Boroditsky observed a remote Australian Aboriginal community called Pormpuraaw in what is perhaps the most extreme example. In all other cultures observed, the direction of time was in relation to the individual (left to right, right to left, front to back, or back to front). The Pormpuraawans were entirely different, basing the flow of time on “absolute” or “cardinal direction” (east to west) regardless of which way they were facing. This means time would flow left to right (when facing south) front to back (when facing east) right to left (when facing north) and back to front (when facing west).9

As bizarre as this may sound, it is again consistent with their language. Pormpuraawans use cardinal directions (north, east south, and west) in basic, everyday conversations in lieu of left, right, front, and back. For example, Boroditsky recallsyou have to say things like ‘There’s an ant on your southeast leg’ or ‘Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.’10 While some view this as burdensome, one incredible result is an internal sense of direction that is unparalleled in other cultures! In order to communicate effectively, they must always be cognizant of cardinal directions. Researchers cite specific instances of their sense of direction on display including when they were entering new environments, recalling previous events, and even inside of buildings! Additional research has further corroborated the uncanny result of using of cardinal directions as the primary spatial descriptors.11

Internal or External?

Every culture has unique forms of verbal communication, so it logically follows that they may take different approaches with identical information given the close tie that can be observed between language and brain function. Agnes Niyekawa-Howard conducted a study contrasting key passages in various short stories that participants translated in Japanese and English. The study was set up so that native English speakers would be translating from Japanese to English and vice-versa. Before going into the results, some background is required on the relevant differences in language. The study masterfully explains that, in Japanese: 

The adversative passive has the semantic function of connoting that the subject of the sentence was involuntarily subjected to something unpleasant. When it is combined with the causative to form the passive causative, the resulting connotation is that, because the subject of the sentence “was caused to” take the action expressed by the main verb, he is not responsible for the act nor for the outcome. While these meanings can be expressed just as well in English with the addition of a phrase or clause, such as “therefore I am not responsible for it,” such an addition makes the expression overt and conscious. The grammatical expressions in Japanese, on the other hand, are covert and subtle. In fact, most native speakers of Japanese are not even consciously aware of the semantic functions these constructions have.

If that sounds too technical, the easy way to think about it is in Japanese, the passive causative puts the focus on outside factors and English does not have a completely equivalent grammatical construction to achieve the same effect. When translating, native Japanese speakers were more likely to express the same version of events in a way that attributes the responsibility to others or outside influences than their English counterparts. This was further tested by showing a cartoons of interpersonal conflict with negative outcomes. As hypothesized, the Japanese were more likely to attribute responsibility to others.12 There is a question of language vs culture that comes into play. A group of Japanese-Americans were also observed and fell in between the two groups. The researchers concluded that language helps explain some differences in cultural outlook. 

Elegant or Strong?

Countless other examples of language affecting cultures exist. Linguist Roman Jakobson observed “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” A perfect example would be telling a story in English about your favorite professor from college. While referring to your professor, it would be easy to do so without revealing their gender. Many languages (German, French, and Spanish to name a few) assign gender to almost every word, including objects! Recalling the same thing in Spanish, the gender of your teacher could be revealed simply from which word was used for “professor” (I.E. catedrático/catedrática).

Assigning gender to inanimate objects has other affects on cognition. Researchers chose 24 items that had opposite “genders” in German and Spanish, then studied adjectives two groups of participants assigned to them and published their findings. The two groups were comprised of bilingual German and Spanish speakers with each group only speaking two languages – English and either German or Spanish. They were presented with the same set of objects and asked to assign adjectives to them. Unsurprisingly, the adjective each person chose typically corresponded with the “gender’ assigned to it from their native tongue. For example, “bridge” has a feminine designation in German, but is treated as a masculine word in Spanish. Germans were more likely to use descriptors along the lines of elegant, slender, and beautiful while their Spanish counterparts used more traditionally masculine adjectives such as strong, sturdy, or towering. The inverse was true when looking at the word “key” which Germans have as masculine, but is feminine in Spanish. Germans described a key as hard, jagged, and metal while Spanish speakers said it was intricate, tiny, and lovely!13

Eye on the Goal

Because culture is also a major factor in the way we think, valid questions should be explored regarding the precise degree culture and language each contribute. For instance, von Stutterheim, Andermann, Carroll, Flecken, & Schmiedtová  published How Grammaticized Concepts Shape Event Conceptualization In Language Production. One portion of their study demonstrates that differences in grammatical structure leads Germans to focus on goals and endpoints while English speakers focus more on what is actively taking place.14

“When viewing a series of everyday events (video clips which include a set of motion events) and telling what is happening, speakers of English conceptualize the event as ‘in progression’ and segment the situation into phases (inchoative, intermediate, terminative phase): a car is driving along a country road (intermediate phase); a truck is approaching a village (terminative phase), thereby focusing on the phase that is prominent in the stimulus. Speakers of German take a holistic view and typically represent the event — whatever phase of the event has actually been depicted — with an endpoint (ein Auto fährt auf einer Straße zu einem Dorf , a car drives on a road to a village ). The linguistic differences are reflected in the degree of visual attention paid to the endpoint, as depicted in the video clip: native speakers of English first direct attention to the phase focused in the video clip (intermediate phase).”

Other research using eye tracking software shows in certain circumstances, there are cross-language differences. At times it was seen within the very first second of observation!15

To isolate the impact of language, Panos Athanasopoulos and 5 other researchers analyzed the effects of the active language being used for English and German bilinguals. The study was conducted by showing participants short video clips of basic tasks (IE a person walking to their car) and comparing the preferences in motion completion clips to ascertain how goal-oriented each person was. Monolingual representatives were also observed from both languages. The first test was straightforward, with all participants completing the full test in one of the two languages. The results were as expected with goal orientation being strongest in the following order: German monolinguals > bilinguals in German context > bilinguals in English context > English monolinguals. In their verbal dialogue, researchers noted that German monolinguals (62%) were significantly more likely to English monolinguals (37%) to include goal information when describing the clips.16

To spice things up, another element was added on the next bilingual test subjects. In the middle of the test, the language being used was switched. When this happened the subject’s preferences toward completion goals also changed! The below chart shows the “pre” and “post” switch results and, at the time of posting, the full study can be viewed here.

 motion complete

Colors of the Rainbow

If not for the vast insights that have been compiled over the years, it would seem absurd to think language would have any bearing on how we view colors since they are, by definition, visual. Some would argue that when considering Lupyan & Ward’s findings that we are able to better perceive objects if they have specific linguistic labels attached to them17, color recognition may actually seem unimpressive but I digress.

The fact remains that exhaustive research has been conducted on how colors are grouped across languages. It may be shocking to learn that not all languages even have the same amount of words for “basic” colors. English has 11 words (red, green, blue, yellow, black, white, grey, pink, orange, purple and brown) while the Himba tribe in Namibia and the Alaskan language Yup’ik only distinguish five unique color classifications.

Paul Kay and Brent Berlin have done arguable the most in-depth research on this topic through the word color survey which finds a relatively consistent pattern different cultures have in grouping the wide spectrum of colors. They grouped these into seven stages. “Stage one” languages only have a distinction between dark and light colors. “Stage two” languages have a third color – which is almost always red. “Stage three” will have either green or yellow, “stage four” will have both green and yellow with subsequent stages including blue and brown respectively then purple/pink/orange, or gray.18

The categorical groupings of colors can influence how we see them. One study found that Russians were quicker and more accurate in discerning multiple shades of blue than their American counterparts.19 In Russian, there are 12 categories for basic colors. They do not have a single, all -encompassing word for the color blue. Instead, the most general terms in the language are sinij which include darker shades of blue and goluboj which are used for lighter shades. Combining this categorical distinction with everything else discovered in this field, it should not come as a surprise to learn they are more sensitive to the nuanced variations of blue that appear in the world around them!

A similar experiment was conducted showing Greeks, who also make the distinction of “ghalazio” and “ble” to describe lighter and darker shades of blue, outperformed English participants in matching and identifying contrasting shades of blue.20


Language achieves more than merely conveying information. Studies show everything from changes in brain size, brain function, sense of direction, and color sensitivity! The world is an amazing place, and there are endless observations that can be made about the intricacies found in our everyday life. Prior to viewing Arrival I was not aware this topic and field of study even existed! Furthermore, I would not have believed anyone making the claim that the movie would/could weave a virtually unknown concept with real world applications into the center of everything taking place! I really do learn something new every day.

  1. An American Indian Model of the Universe by []
  2. Growth Of Language-related Brain Areas After Foreign Language Learning by Mårtensson J, Eriksson J, Bodammer NC, Lindgren M, Johansson M, Nyberg L, Lövdén M []
  3. The Impact Of Bilingualism On Brain Reserve And Metabolic Connectivity In Alzheimer’s Dementia by Daniela Perani, Mohsen Farsad, Tommaso Ballarini, Francesca Lubian, Maura Malpetti, Alessandro Fracchetti, Giuseppe Magnani, Albert March, and Jubin Abutalebi []
  4. Good Language-switchers Are Good Task-switchers: Evidence From Spanish-english And Mandarin-english Bilinguals. by Prior A, Gollan TH. []
  5. Hemispheric Specialization Of Language: An Eeg Study Of Bilingual Hopi Indian Children by Rogers L, TenHouten W, Kaplan CD, Gardiner M. []
  6. Brain Responses To Nouns, Verbs And Class-ambiguous Words In Context. by Federmeier KD, Segal JB, Lombrozo T, Kutas M. []
  7. Does Language Shape Thought? Mandarin And English Speakers’ Conceptions Of Time. by Boroditsky L. []
  8. With The Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language And Gesture In The Crosslinguistic Comparison Of Spatial Construals Of Time. by Núñez RE, Sweetser E. []
  9. Remembrances Of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations Of Time In An Australian Aboriginal Community. by Boroditsky L, Gaby A. []
  10. How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think? by Lera Boroditsky []
  11. Guugu Yimithirr Cardinal Directions by John B. Haviland Ethos Vol. 26, No. 1, Language, Space, and Culture (Mar., 1998), pp. 25-47 []
  12. A Psycholinguistic Study of the Whorfian Hypothesis Based on the Japanese Passive. by Niyekawa-Howard, Agnes M. []
  13. How Language Affects Thought in a Connectionist Model by Katia Dilkina, James L. McClelland []
  14. How Grammaticized Concepts Shape Event Conceptualization: Insights From Linguistic Analysis, Eye Movements And Memory Performance by v. Stutterheim, C., Andermann, M., Carroll, M., Flecken, M. & Schmiedtova, B. Link []
  15. Does Language Guide Event Perception? Evidence From Eye Movements by Anna Papafragou, Justin Hulbert, and John Trueswell []
  16. Two Languages, Two Minds: Flexible Cognitive Processing Driven By Language Of Operation. by Athanasopoulos P, Bylund E, Montero-Melis G, Damjanovic L, Schartner A, Kibbe A, Riches N, Thierry G. []
  17. Language Can Boost Otherwise Unseen Objects Into Visual Awareness. by
    Lupyan G, Ward EJ. []
  18. The World Color Survey Database: History and Use by Richard S. Cook, Paul Kay,
    and Terry Regier []
  19. Russian Blues Reveal Effects Of Language On Color Discrimination by Jonathan Winawer, Nathan Witthoft, Michael C. Frank, Lisa Wu, Alex R. Wade, and Lera Boroditsky []
  20. Unconscious Effects Of Language-specific Terminology On Preattentive Color Perception. by Thierry G, Athanasopoulos P, Wiggett A, Dering B, and Kuipers JR. []

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