The Thesis of Linguistic Determinism

Carl H. Flygt

September 2007


The thesis of linguistic determinism is the idea that nothing is available to human consciousness outside its capacity to apply words to it. A possible experience is what it is solely in virtue of its being represented in language. If it has no such representation, it doesn’t exist. A person devoid of the means to express an idea is devoid of that idea.


The thesis was adduced with systematic force by Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), a linguist with specialization in Mesoamerican languages and Hopi. Whorf asks whether the concepts of space, time and substance are given in the same form to all human beings, or whether they and their concomitant experiences are conditioned by the structure of the languages they speak. In the same vein he asks whether there are traceable affinities between cultural and behavioral norms and large-scale linguistic patterns. In other words, Whorf asks whether human consciousness might not contain some evolutionary and perhaps even morphological divergences among different language groups with respect to material reality as it is experienced. Then he asks whether such divergences can be traced with linguistic analysis.


Whorf does indeed find differences in the structure of the categorical concept of time between Hopi language and what he calls Standard Average European usage (SAE), which treats time according to a spatial imagination. For the user of SAE, time is conceived and experienced on a linear metaphor that is “patterned on the outer world.” A space of ten days, for example, is a cyclic pattern in time conceived and experienced as a mentally constructed group, as an “imaginary plural.” This pattern has none of the objective reality of, for example, an aggregate of ten books, but it is treated by users of SAE with the same linguistic pattern. For the speaker of SAE, cyclicity brings the conscious response of imaginary plurals, even though the likeness of cyclicity to aggregates is not given by experience prior to language.


The Hopi language, which developed in an arid environment in a culture with no economic surplus, neither reflects nor allows this imaginative convention. For the Hopi, the subjective sense of “becoming later,” which for Whorf is the “essence of time,” dominates the entire conception and the entire experience of this fundamental conceptual category. Hopi language applies plurals and cardinals only to entities such as physical objects that can form an objective group. An expression such as “ten days” is not used, and thus presumably is neither conceived nor experienced. For the Hopi, nothing cloaks the subjective “becoming later,” which is the universal essence of time. Consequently, Hopi culture demonstrates neither historical progress nor material sophistication; at the same time, it supports a tremendous sophistication toward cosmic and occult signs and experiences, and an ontological depth that the user of SAE is challenged to follow.


Other examples of the material difference between use under SAE and under Hopi are adduced, including differences in the way mass nouns are used in SAE to conceptualize materials or in the way imaginative nouns are used to conceptualize phases of cycles, neither of which occur in Hopi. These differences and others are reflected in habitual thought and habitual behavior in the two cultures, and the differences of thought and behavior are reflected in institutional differences between them. Whether a commercialized culture based on time-prorata values (wages, rent, credit, interest, depreciation, insurance) could have developed under the Hopi’s linguistic handling of time and substance seems quite improbable, and certainly the Hopi way of life would be disrupted by increased infiltration of SAE language use and cultural practice.


But which comes first, language patterns or cultural norms?


The theory of linguistic determinism holds that “language is the factor that limits plasticity and rigidifies channels of development in the more autocratic way.” This is because language is a system, and not just an assemblage of norms. It is the factor which, because it is systematic, changes more slowly. Cultural innovation can occur with comparative quickness; linguistic treatment of the Kantian categories, once established, cannot change quickly because it is tied systematically to everything else in language, cultural usage and individual self-consciousness. For the linguistic determinist, the limits of language are the limits of the world.



Whorf, Benjamin Lee. “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language.” In John Carroll (ed) Language, Thought and Reality. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA: 1956.

Whorf, p. 67.

Whorf, p. 68.

Whorf, p. 81-82