Language, Thought, Culture: A Reassessment

If Eskimos have several words for snow, do they perceive it differently from us? Are the Piraha, a tribe in the Amazon rainforest whose language lacks number words, not able to keep track of exact quantities? And do speakers of Australian aboriginal languages, who say north, south, east, and west rather than left and right, have better spatial orientation than English speakers? In short, does our language affect how we think and perceive the world? Or are there universal aspects of human language and cognition that transcend linguistic divisions?

In this course, we will discuss some of the most hotly debated and fundamental issues concerning language and thought; examine important theories of language and its relationship to thought and culture (such as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis and Noam Chomsky’s parametric theory of language); and scrutinize current research on both culture-specific and universal aspects of human languages. We will read and discuss Guy Deutcher’s Through the Language Glass, which claims that “different languages can lead their speakers to different thoughts” and John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax, which argues that the idea that “the language we speak shapes the way we perceive the world” is plainly wrong. Our overarching goal is to gain a better understanding of human nature through what the philosopher Leibniz called “the best mirror of the human mind”—our language.


EskimoLanguage & Culture:

Using cultural markers to locate ancestral languages: Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Austronesian, Japanese homeland

On ‘you’ words

On Eskimo snow vocabulary

Mainland Scandinavian languages: Norwegian, Swedish, Danish (see also here)

Languages of the former Yugoslavia

Belgium: language and politics

Ukraine: language and politics

Switzerland: language and the immigration question


color spectrum


TED article: How language can affect the way we think

How we divide up the world into categories named by words?

How we divide up and name colors?

Hanunoo Basic Color Terms

Grue? Bleen? Rellow?

When color terms denote something other than color

How children learn color words

How to catch a Russian spy?


The Whorfian Question, the Neo-Whorfian Replies:piraha_experiment

The Pirahã Controversy: Numbers: part 1, part 2, and part 3

“The Best Language for Math”—Is there such a thing?




Gender and Time:

Study by Gay, Victor; Estefania Santacreu-Vasut,  & Amir Shoham (2013): see here and here

Gender of country names

Gender vs. Noun Class: same or different?

The Best and Worst Places for Women

“Hen” said, “hen” said: Swedish pronoun dilemma

More on gender stereotypes: How Google Translates Gender

Is “gender” language or culture? The human and the frog

More on sex, gender and translation

And more on grammatical gender and translation

Keith Chen’s study and critique: You save what you speak?

More on the alleged correlation between “future tense” and “future-oriented behavior”

Just how “future-oriented” are the Russians? Russia’s “Bill of Health” and the Sochi Olympic Smokescreen

Why are languages so different?

What different languages “obsess” about

Evidential markers in Yukaghir languages

The evolution of word order and “free word order” languages

On Universal Grammar and related matters

Are there “universal truths” about language?




Does language reflect/affect thought?

Language and Thought: A reassessment