The Japanese Challenge: can you learn a language within a week?

Outrageous Claims?

I tend to be a bit sceptical when I hear reports of people, even geniuses, who claim to have managed to learn a language within a week (just as much as I tend to be sceptical of people telling me that they were able to read and write at the age of 3). These claims don’t tie in with my own experience of language learning (and they don’t tie in with what I see on a daily basis when teaching children and adults of all ages and abilities at my language school, The Universe of Language): whatever you say, language acquisition is a hard, time-consuming task! Although I personally have always enjoyed diving into the unknown realm of a new language, I could never pretend that learning a language is easy. No, it’s a long journey, characterised by numerous setbacks and the need for willpower to re-build words and sentences from the remnants of attempts that failed in times of pressure.

Learning a language within a week?

After discussing reports of super-fast language acquisition in adults with my friend and fellow linguist Charlette, we decided to put the claim that – with a bit of talent and lots of dedication – it is possible to learn a language within a very short period of time to the test: by trying to learn a language none of us has had any previous experience of within a week! And what more interesting language to learn than Japanese? That evening, the Japanese Challenge was born!

A time of unencumbered learning

With our diaries in front of us, we tried to find a week that suited us both, and we soon agreed that it would be the first week of January 2017: it is far enough in the future to allow us to get organised, and it is a week in which none of us has any serious commitments. This is important: such a week has to be well planned! Moreover, I am a strong believer in the idea that both first language acquisition in children, which often appears effortless to the outside world, and the failure many adults experience when trying to learn a foreign language are down to the same factor: life – the motivation to survive, the fact that life happens! While a child can spend countless hours thinking about nothing else but words, and even has to do so in order to get what it needs, adults are faced with all sorts of difficult decisions and intellectual problems, which encumber their thought processes and make language acquisition hard. (This is not to say that children are not faced with problems, but the nature of their problems doesn’t seem to distract from language learning, and language acquisition is even necessary for some of their problems to be solved.)

Preparing to meet the challenge

Now, back to our challenge! The next couple of weeks will be used to organise everything: ordering textbooks, finding a teacher who can help us with potential difficulties, finding Japanese places to eat out in our city (we love dining out almost as much as we love language), buying Japanese food and products of everyday life, ordering Japanese magazines, downloading Japanese music and videos, maybe some hentai for the night :-), and setting up a plan.

Watch us …

If you’re interested in our progress, if you want to see how far we will get learning a language within a week, watch this space from 2nd January 2017 onward. I’ll keep you updated on everything to do with our Japanese Challenge.

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Trump translators, stop moaning and get on with your work!

Recently, a number of articles and interviews have popped up online in which translators and interpreters – most prominently French translator Bérangère Viennot and German interpreter Norbert Heikamp – complained about the difficulties Donald Trump’s simplistic and unpredictable use of language poses to them. While the French translator seems to fear for her own reputation when rendering simplistic language simplistically, the German interpreter highlights the unpredictability of Trump’s speeches, comparing the new American president’s discourse to dadaism. Silently triumphant, much of the English-speaking press takes the two linguists’ comments as evidence that Donald Trump’s use of language is sub-standard, rubbish and unforgivably bad.

When reading the articles, I couldn’t help thinking that they were – at least in parts – politically motivated. The linguists’ complaints are, in a slightly underhand way, used to prove the point that Donald Trump is so incredibly dumb that he can’t even speak English properly, leaving language experts unable to make sense of his erratic ramblings. The strategy of undermining a political figure’s authority by mocking their use of language, of course, is not new: in the Bush era, Bushisms were famously collected and shared online; and Slate, whose French version was the magazine publishing Bérangère Viennot’s article, had embarked on a campaign to mock Trump’s linguistic skills (or lack thereof) as early as in 2015. But it is new that professional translators take the floor to add their meta-linguistic comments on people they work with to join in the linguistic bashing of political figures.

While I do agree that the American president’s discourse is not exactly the pinnacle of linguistic prowess, I believe that his linguistic ineptitude is being overstated and that translators and interpreters are wrong to moan about it. Illogical sentence structures reflecting half-baked thoughts, inelegant repetitions showing a poor range of vocabulary, the wrong register, unwanted ambiguities and lacking cohesion are all very common in most people’s utterances. After all, defective texts are among the reasons why machines haven’t put human translators out of work yet: we humans have a great ability to make sense of defective texts, using context and world knowledge and putting ourselves into the mental frameworks of others, thereby finding meaning beyond the actual words. Translators and interpreters should therefore see the new American president and his defective speeches as a professional challenge and take up the gauntlet.

Having said that, I can, in many ways, sympathise with the German interpreter when he claims that Donald Trump gives him outbreaks of sweat: any conference interpreter who has ever lent their voice to an inconsistent speaker will know the feeling of utter horror when that speaker, all of a sudden, starts to contradict himself, leaving the interpreter with the haunting thought that they might just have said the exact opposite of what the speaker expressed in his speech! In Trump’s case, such outbreaks of sweat and horror must arise with great frequency: when an interpreter lends their voice to the American president, there is a lot at stake, but with Trump, the interpreter is also faced with a complete breakup of the conventional concept of  what a political speech at a presidential level should sound like! While amongst the mental health patients for whom I often interpret, inconsistencies and hallucination-induced, dadaesque utterances are well to be expected, the scripts and frames of presidential discourse don’t allow for such features! Donald Trump, however, has changed the script, and interpreters had better get used to it! The challenge for interpreters consists of leaving behind their usual understanding of how a statesman has to talk and of inhabiting Donald Trump’s world with all its political incorrectness, with all its vulgarity and its lack of diplomatic finesse. If an interpreter manages that feat, embracing Trump’s way of thinking, his words, over time, will certainly appear less bizarre and inconsistent to them than they do if they stubbornly refuse to venture into his world.

For the French translator, I have much less sympathy. In her article, she keeps on raving about the beauty of Obama’s speeches, which she used to translate with great passion, speeches for whose translations she was able to write all those fancy words, those silent hints of irony, those elegant figures of speech translators learn to use at university for the unlikely case that they might, some day, earn their money by translating literature. She now seems bitter, because with Trump, she can no longer show off her writing skills… Oh, those writing skills! Translators always fancy themselves as authors, but they’re not! While they may well have the linguistic skills to be authors, when they’re working as translators, they’re translators, and their task consists of creating a target-language mirror image of the source text, of the words and thoughts and the personalities behind those words. And with Donald Trump, those words are simple, sometimes rude or even vulgar, not refined and elegant as Obama’s words. However, they are ideal for translators to show off their translation talents: their talents of figuring out the intention and the meaning behind the words, which might not always be the right words, the overall function of a speech, the conscious and less conscious reasons why someone says what they say the way they say it and of conveying the speech in the most appropriate manner to the intended target audience. For those who don’t share Trump’s political inclinations and who value a refined style in language, translating Donald Trump – more than translating any other politician – means to leave their intellectualised, inclusive, multi-cultural world of taste and good style behind them, providing a voice for someone they profoundly disagree with and whose linguistic style they disdain. Simplistic language has to be rendered simplistically; vulgar expressions have to be rendered as vulgar expressions; xenophobic thoughts as xenophobic thoughts! People have a right to know how exactly the American president expresses himself, and a good translator will bring out all the nuances in his speeches, his thoughts and his personality. The French translator, somewhat hypocritically, claims that she’s afraid of normalising Donald Trump by making his speeches sound more elaborate than they are in the source language. Well, if she does do that, she does it because she forgets that translation is not about her and that she’s not supposed to shoehorn Donald Trump’s worldviews into her intellectual and linguistic universe, but that quite the opposite is the case: that she has to use the riches of the French collective vocabulary to re-create Donald Trump’s thoughts and words in a French context. It is nonsensical for a translator to claim that Donald Trump ruins their reputation in the target-language community because of his simplistic style and thought processes.

Trump translators, get a grip! Unlike what you would like to be perceived as, people in the target-language community don’t see you as authors. If they see you at all, they perceive you as the trusted messengers mirroring the words and thoughts of Donald Trump, the man they’re interested in. It is your job as translators to serve your source text author by maintaining their style and choice of words, however offensive, stupid or inconsistent you think their utterances are, and to serve your target-language audience by helping them create an accurate picture of the man behind the speeches you translate. It is not your task to foster your career as a writer! Translation is not about you, and if you cannot detach yourselves from your own political ideas and convictions, let alone from your own writing style, quite frankly, you should probably consider a career change.

It is also not very professional for translators to step into the limelight, speaking about the linguistic inadequacies of the people you work with. Translators and interpreters should always remain impartial and their political views should never interfere with their work. If you cannot morally lend your voice to a specific person, simply don’t translate them. And if you think that a speaker’s language is a reflection of his intellectual deficits, keep it to yourself. If you translate him well, your audience will come to the same conclusion after reading your translation. As a translator, you are not supposed to alter the reception of a speaker in the target-language community by meta-linguistically commenting on their language skills.


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Because it’s language, everything goes!

Yesterday, I went to see Lilting at the cinema, a film about a Chinese-Cambodian mother living in London, whose homosexual son had died before coming out to her, and about her relationships with her son’s grieving lover as well as with an elderly British womaniser she met at the home in which her son had parked her when moving in with his boyfriend. Given that the mother didn’t speak a word of English (apart from “Fuck you very much”), a bilingual person was brought in to help with communication between the protagonists. Language and interpreting played a major role in the film, and there was a panel discussion afterwards, in which – according to the programme brochure – experts from the University of Edinburgh would discuss, amongst other things, the link between language and gender.

Under the heading “language and gender”, a cornucopia of topics could be discussed, for example how interpreters in cultures with taboos for one gender (e.g. about sexuality) convey ideas expressed by speakers of the other gender, how literary translators between languages with gendered nouns render terms whose genders are used to convey meaning but whose equivalents in the target language don’t have the same gender (e.g. a translation of a German poem in which the sun is assimilated to a woman, with “Sonne” being feminine, into Italian, where the equivalent term “sole” is masculine), how – in many cultures – girls are taught to use language in ways that are different from the ways in which boys use it and vice versa (e.g. when it comes to swearing), how language is used by politicians and activists to promote feminism or to assign gender roles, whether there are universal patterns in the ways in which men and women speak, in which they are addressed and talked about in the languages of the world and to what extent such differences are of a purely linguistic nature and to which degree they can be attributed to culture.

However, Lilting was not about any of these issues, nor was it about anything that could be easily summarised under the heading of language and gender, at least not based on what the non-Mandarin-speaking target audience could have gathered from the film! Don’t get me wrong: it was a highly interesting film, which touched on a lot of subjects that are of great interest to linguists, but it wasn’t about the link between language and gender! It seems to me that the organisers of the panel discussion tried to lump a few modern-day buzzwords, such as “gender” and “LGBT”, together with language in an attempt to make “language” sound sexier! When I challenged the panellists, asking in what ways they thought the film was about language and gender, the answer I got from one of them was: “Well, language can never really be separated from gender!”

What? Let’s hear that statement again, so that it can sink in properly: “Language can never really be separated from gender!” I got very intrigued by that strong statement about language and its putative link to gender, and I asked the expert to expand on that. Her reply was: “Well, there are genders in language, therefore one cannot separate language from gender!” What a sweeping and illogical statement coming from an expert in translation studies!

As the expert wasn’t passionate enough to continue the discussion with me and preferred, instead, to go for drinks with her mates from the Ivory Tower (so much for academia’s attempts to reach out to the public), I was left speculating about what she could possibly have meant: when she said “there are genders in language”, did she refer to the fact that most languages have words (e.g. nouns or pronouns) to describe biologically male or female referents in the world or did she refer to the fact that some languages have grammatically gendered words? Either way, the argument she was trying to make seems trivial at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

If we apply the first interpretation, the only way in which language could not be separated from gender would be the same way in which language could not be separated from meerkats, baobabs, spacecraft or anything else that exists in the world and that we can refer to using language. Based on De Saussure’s terminology, terms like “man”, “woman”, “he” or “she” would be signifiers symbolising referents in the world, but it is quite easy to imagine a language which has no specific signifiers for genders, with maybe only a term to describe personhood. There is absolutely no reason why such a language couldn’t exist and function like any other language, which is why, in this sense, one cannot argue that language and gender are inseparable. The expert I spoke to might argue that there are, of course, biological genders in the real world and that language must have a way of referring to them, but that is simply not the case! There are a lot of things in the world which some languages can and other languages cannot describe, biological gender could just be one such thing. Theoretically, language can be separated from all its referents in the world individually; as long as some semantic content remains in a language, the language in question continues to exist.

If we apply the second interpretation, where gender is seen as a fundamental part of the grammar of certain languages – comparable to the importance of number (e.g. 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular and plural) in almost all tongues – the statement about gender would only apply to individual languages, such as German or French, while it would not apply to a large number of others which have no grammatical genders, such as English or Turkish. But even then, the claim remains trivial! Claiming that gender can never really be separated from languages such as German or French is like claiming that numbers (e.g. 287 or 563) can never really be separated from most languages (except maybe from the language of the Pirahã, whose number system is extremely rudimentary), because most languages have a concept of grammatical number! In fact, the claim that languages with gendered nouns cannot be separated from gender presents a slippery slope to a complete mix-up of grammatical and biological genders: in the first part of the statement, the adjective “gendered” refers to the grammatical gender of nouns, whereas the gender which, according to this statement, is inextricably linked to language is an organism’s biological gender. The two have very little to do with each other, with grammatical genders’ just being categories of words,  which one could just as well call “Group A” and “Group B”. Therefore, to shoehorn the fact that some languages have grammatical genders into evidence that language cannot be separated from biological genders is a feat of intellectual dishonesty.

I might never find out what exactly the panellist meant by her claim, but I can’t help suspecting that her statement “language can never really be separated from gender” was not well thought through and was uttered more because it sounded good and fashionable, with its slightly neo-Whorfian ring to it, than because of its scientific accuracy. It seems to me that in language studies not even scholars care much about precision. They seem to be quite comfortable with the idea that words are flexible and can be used to blur an illogical train of thought rather than being used as precision instruments to clarify unclear thoughts. Because it’s language, everything goes!


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Japanese Challenge: Update


Charlette wrote a little write-up at the end of our Japanese Challenge. Moreover, she had a go at writing something about herself in Japanese. There may be mistakes. Check it out:

And so, our time as language geeks with nothing better to do with our lives than learn a language in a week draws to a close. Was it worth the sleepless nights on the floor, the exudation of highly aromatic body odour, the often-heated fallouts over grammar rules? Tuesday marked the day of the assessment. Despite our exhaustion from last-minute cramming, we made a heroic effort to impress. Little did we know the assessment was actually designed for children Japanese-speakers, so criteria such as “our ability to form friendships with other children” could be disregarded as irrelevant (and we would probably have failed that part anyway). In the end, we were awarded the title of “questioning communicators”.

Here’s her Japanese text:

Ohayou gozaimasu. Watashi no namae wa Charlette desu. Igirisu-jin desu. Sukottorando no shuto ni sunde imasu. Ni juu san sai desu. Daigakusei de gengogaku o benkyou shite imasu.  Watashi to watashi no tomodachi no Mirjam chan wa charenji ga suki desu kara, konshuu nihongo o naratte imashita. Senshuu takusan no gengo o hanasemasu otoko futari ni tsuite no bideo o mimashita. Watashitachi wa totemo kurashikatta. Konshuu wa taihen deshita kedo, nihongo wa omoshiro kutte demo muzukashii desu. Watashitachi no sensei no Noriko ga oshiete ni kimashita.

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The Japanese Challenge: Assessment Day


So, today, we got assessed for what we achieved over the past week. Unfortunately, our teacher made the assessment far too easy, and it turns out that the assessment sheet she used is one for children. We may well have given her the impression that we are indeed kids in our minds, as our learning process involved a lot of giggling and fooling around. However, the assessment sheet doesn’t really reflect what we can and cannot do. This means that you will have to take my word for it:

  • We can have very simple conversations amongst each other, telling each other where we’re going or what we’re doing and we can ask each other simple questions like “Would you like to have some coffee” etc.
  • We can answer simple questions.
  • We can speak about ourselves in simple sentences, saying who we are, what we do for a living or who our friends and family are.
  • We know about 20 verbs, which we can use in the present and the past tense, affermatively, negatively and as a question.
  • We can say what people do now and what they did before. We also know most relative time adverbials like “yesterday”, “last month” or “last year”.
  • In a limited way, we can describe objects and people using adjectives.
  • We can count: up to a million, as well as small objects, flat thin things, long slender things, days, days of the month, hours and minutes, small and big animals and people.
  • We know roughly 1000 words.
  • We can make simple sentences, but we cannot yet make any complex sentences.
  • We can read hiragana, but not katakana or kanji yet.

All in all, we’ve reached a level which we can be proud of and which we can build upon. Maybe we’re not quite as good as the red-haired brethren, as we call them, from Babel, but what we achieved is not bad either and seems to be more realistic for a language like Japanese.

The next step for us will be to sit an official Japanese language exam as soon as possible.

Over the next few days, I’ll post a few texts snd videos which document last week’s learning process.


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The Japanese Challenge: Update Day 5

Here’s Charlette’s take on the experience:

Japanese Challenge: Day Five
We have come to the end of a five-day working week, but, unlike the ordinary businessman who can probably now put his feet up for a well-earned rest over the weekend, our business is far from over. For the last five days, we have been stretching our brains to the limit, attempting to understand, learn and remember Japanese words, phrases and characters, with the pressure of the speedily approaching Japanese assessment only a few days away. More than once, I have been reminded of the aphorism: ‘The more I study, the more I know, the more I know, the more I forget, the more I forget, the less I know. So why study?’

Why study? After all, this week has shown us to be no more than self-inflicting masochists who enjoy nothing better than metaphorically flagellating ourselves with the nihongo branch of the Japonic family tree for no other reason than… it’s a challenge. We could just as easily time ourselves to see how many kilos of ice cream we can eat in a minute – at least that would be deserving of a potential Guinness World Record. But no, at the end of this week, there will be no prizes, no records, no world recognition… nothing. Indeed, having made a vow to spend the whole of the week in our study chamber, which is essentially what the Universe of Language has become, we find ourselves at the end of the day crawling, exhausted, into our makeshift beds of bean bags, pillows and blankets. However, the fear that by sleeping, we are wasting precious Japanese study time, keeps us in weary insomnia until the early hours of the morning. With only a few hours of sleep, we awake as weary as when we went to bed. Without any shower facilities, we are forced to make do with cold water from the sink, which is far from effective in maintaining satisfactory cleanliness. So, we have degenerated into zombified tramps, who have become squatters in our own establishment, with a murderous addiction to coffee, and who desperately need a bath. So why study? We’re getting nothing but frustration and mental fatigue out of it.

Let’s give you an insight with the example sentence: ‘miruku wa ikaga desu ka?’ (Would you like some milk?). The frustration first comes upon trying to recall the word for ‘milk’ – you know it’s there, you literally learnt it an hour ago, its letters are somewhere playing peek-a-boo in the recesses of your memory; this is followed afterwards by the highly stressful and equally painful ordeal of forming the necessary sentence structure to fit this evasive word in; then comes the final torturous endeavour of connecting brain to vocal tract to stutter out some garbled sequence of sounds not dissimilar to the effortless goo-gaa-ing of a two-year old.

So, why are we doing it? Because every day, we learn something new, and it is this knowledge which is like the door to another world, a new way of thinking, of seeing things not just as brushstrokes on canvas, but as a coded language which can only be deciphered by those who possess the key. Even at this stage, we can already class ourselves as privileged key bearers, who, at every step, unlock new secrets, new nuggets of information, which we can use to continue unlocking new doors and to revisit old ones.

And, above all, it’s good fun. Our ridiculous mnemonics for hiragana (‘the character for the sound ‘ne’ looks like Nessie, the Loch Ness monster’) and Japanese vocabulary (‘kanashii’ – ‘sad’: ‘Scots are sad because they cannae ski’), the wonderful tuition and guidance of our Japanese sensei, Noriko, and, of course, releasing Japanese vibes through The Universe of Language by way of mochi cakes, green tea, sake and seriously fucked-up home-made sushi have all helped us accelerate our learning to a level which has caused a great amount of surprise. And, most importantly, we know how to laugh at ourselves, as thefollowing videos and photos show:


Geeking out in our language nerd’s paradise




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The First 24 Hours


Yeah, that’s right: the Japanese Challenge began yesterday morning! We’ve had our first formal lesson with our Japanese teacher, tried to absorb the Hiragana writing system, labelled lots of objects in my language school in Japanese and crammed vocabulary until we fell asleep in our makeshift camp made of beanbags and blankets; but most of all, we had a real ball! To give you an impression of our first 24 hours, I’m posting a few videos. Please don’t laugh too hard at our probably rather unintelligible Japanese. I promise it’ll get better soon!


My response to Charlie’s attempt to wake me up with Japanese questions! Need to learn swear words for a more eloquent reply.

In the afternoon, we got really tired and did these videos. We didn’t even realise that the “r” in “tori” (bird) would be pronounced as an “l”. But then, we wouldn’t have had all the fun tori shooting!

We also practiced introductions: here are takes 1 and 2!





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Why the Giraffe Riddle is Interesting

Over the past few days, a silly riddle, the so-called “Giraffe Riddle”, has gone viral on Facebook. The riddle goes like this: “3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?”

People who never took an interest in semantics before and who only ever use the term “semantic” as an attribute of someone who is seen as a pedant, someone who over-analyses the content of everyday utterances, are these days arguing on Facebook about whether it’s logical or grammatical to say “The first thing you open is your eyes”, what the implications of present tense narration are and why, given the wording of the riddle, one or the other thing (amongst the most common suggestions being “your eyes” and “the door”) is more logical to open first.

What makes this phenomenon fascinating is not only the fact that it highlights the high potential in humans to pick fights for silly reasons or the fact that adults have forgotten to think like children and, instead of applying Occam’s razor, tend to complicate and overthink things. What is most fascinating about the phenomenon surrounding this ill-formulated riddle is the fact that it shows how difficult it is for humans to detect defective text and how easily they are ready to infer meaning from defective text, believing that such meaning is correct and making it the basis of their further reasoning.

That humans have an immense ability to correct defective text when parsing is already known (just think of the experiments showing that readers can decode English words in a text correctly even if their individual letters are completely mixed up), but defective texts are not only texts that contain obvious spelling mistakes or a screwed-up syntax. Texts which contain inconsistencies on a logical or semantic level or texts which involuntarily violate Grice’s Maxims can also be seen as defective, and this semantic defectiveness is the trickiest of all: while computers lack the ability to make sense of fuzzy text, humans quite happily delude themselves into believing that they understand it all and integrate what they think they understood into the context knowledge they need to further decode the text.

Now why is the Giraffe Riddle defective? It is defective because it violates not only Grice’s Maxims of Quantity (Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purpose of the exchange) and Manner (be clear, avoid ambiguity) but also the implicit rules and conventions that exist regarding the characteristics of different text types: the text type “riddle” requires solvability, and solvability is achieved if only one reading of a text is possible or if all possible readings of a text lead to the same conclusion. However, this is not the case at all in the Giraffe Riddle. Let’s take a closer look:

“3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?”

The question that pops into every reader’s mind is “The first thing after what?” And, of course, the text doesn’t specify this. This ambiguity itself doesn’t make the text defective. An ambiguous question, while violating Grice’s Maxims both of Manner and of Quantity, can be voluntary and even necessary for the purpose of the riddle itself. However, if this is the case, the rest of the text has to be structured in such a way that it is possible to infer beyond any doubt what the omitted piece of information must be. There can only be one possible reading of the text or, if there are several possible readings, they all have to make the same piece of information necessary in the question, or if none of this is the case, they all have to lead to the same answer regardless of what the missing piece of information in the question is. In the Giraffe Riddle, not only are there myriads of ways of reading the text, but there are also several ways of filling in the missing piece of information in the question and various ways to answer the question once the missing piece of information is found.

Now, let’s take a look at the different possible readings of the Giraffe Riddle text, concentrating on two different questions: Is the text intended to be a descriptive or a narrative text? And do the reader and the agent of the text have the same information available or is a reading possible in which the agent doesn’t know everything the reader knows, e.g. that it’s 3am or that their parents are there for breakfast or that they have strawberry jam, honey, bread, wine and cheese?

Let’s decide first whether the text is to be read as a narrative or as a descriptive text. Narrative texts are often characterised by past tense verbs and temporal adverbs and adverbials, which are used to organise the chronological progression. In the absence of these, other linguistic devices such as a clear chronological structure have to be provided to make it clear that the text is narrative. Descriptive texts, on the other hand, are characterised by simple present or past tense verbs and locative adverbs and adverbials. In narrative texts, the actions described happen one after the other as the text progresses, whereas in descriptive texts, the states described are present simultaneously. Sometimes, narrative and descriptive passages are combined in the wider context of a text. In the Giraffe Riddle, we only have one temporal adverbial, 3am, and the text is written in present tense. Due to the present tense and the absence of other temporal adverbials to structure the chronological progression, we have to assume that the text is either descriptive, describing the situation at 3 o’clock in the morning, or that – if it is a narrative text after all – it follows the chronological progression implicitly expected in narratives, i.e. that the actions occur in the same order in which they are being described.

As for the agent’s knowledge, there can be a reading of the text in which the agent doesn’t know that it is 3am and in which the agent doesn’t know what food and drink they have in their fridge; however, due to the fragment “Unexpected visitors” (which clearly refers to an expectation held by the agent and not by the reader), there is no possible reading in which the agent doesn’t know by the end of the text that it’s their parents who are there. This means that any reading in which the agent doesn’t know by the end of the text that their parents are at the door has to be ruled out.

With this knowledge in mind, let’s look at the possible readings:

Let’s assume the text is descriptive: If the text is seen as descriptive and complete in itself, the question including the omitted piece of information has to be “What is the first thing you open in this situation”, i.e., in the situation that has just been described? Here, the answer would have to be “my left eye” or “my right eye” or, if one doesn’t care about grammatical accuracy, “my eyes”. “The door” would be possible only under very strange circumstances, namely in a situation in which the agent doesn’t know that it’s 3am (or knows it but only because they have a cuckoo clock) and finds out that their parents are there without opening their eyes, e.g. by shouting through the door “Who’s here?”, while making a consistent effort to keep their eyes closed. It can, and I think it should, be argued that the term “waking up” implies the opening of one’s eyes, but since any reading that could be true in any possible world is to be considered admissible in semantics, I will accept this as a possible reading. However, the text could also be seen as descriptive with a narrative starting at the very moment the question is asked: in this case, the question would be “What is the first thing you open as a consequence of this situation?”. And here, the first thing the agent opens could be anything from the “eyes” to the “wine bottle” to an item not yet mentioned: “the eyes” if the consistent effort of not opening their eyes is maintained and the agent also knows by heart what they have in their fridge; “the door” if one assumes that the information about their parents’ being there was gained by peeping through the window or shouting through the door but without opening it; “the fridge”, “the strawberry jam jar”, “the honey jar”, “the wine bottle” or “the cheese” if it is assumed that the agent wants to get everything ready before letting their parents in; or something completely different, such as the wardrobe to take the hoover out or the window to let some fresh air in.

As we see, there are several possible readings under the assumption that the text is descriptive. But is there anything that clearly rules out a reading as a descriptive text? The only thing that could imply that the text has to be read as a narrative is the fragment “Unexpected visitors”. This phrase, which contains a surprise element and has the connotation of something being known all of a sudden, is hard to imagine as a descriptive element.

Let’s therefore take a look at what happens if we assume the text is narrative. Since there are no clear temporal markers, we have to suppose that the actions described occur in the order in which they are being mentioned:

Sentence 1: “3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up.”

“3:00 am” has to be read as a descriptive element within the wider context of this narration. It is possible that the doorbell rings and the agent wakes up independently of the doorbell, but the “and” suggests that the agent wakes up as a consequence of the doorbell’s ringing. Since a reading is possible in which the agent doesn’t know that it’s 3:00 am, nothing explicitly suggests that they open their eyes (except for what I mentioned previously regarding the implications of “waking up”).

 Sentence (Fragment) 2:Unexpected visitors.”

This fragment, if read as part of a narrative, contains implicit information: after waking up, the agent tries to find out who is ringing at the door, either by shouting through the door, by peeping out of the window or by opening the door, or they simply assume that if someone rings at their door they must be visitors, and they didn’t expect any. Up until this point, strictly speaking, there still isn’t anything that suggests that the agent has opened their eyes, but common sense would dictate that they have.

Sentence 3: “It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast.”

This sentence, if read as part of a narrative, contains implicit information too, namely that the agent has tried to find out who is at the door and why. Strictly speaking, there is still nothing that clearly suggests that they have opened their eyes or that they have opened the door, but common sense dictates that by now they have opened both their eyes and the door.

Sentence 4: ”You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese.”

This sentence, if read as part of a narrative, contains implicit information too, namely that the agent has tried to find out what they have in their fridge either by remembering or by going to the kitchen, opening the fridge and checking what’s in there.

It has to be noted that if the text is indeed supposed to be seen as a narrative, all the elements of narration are being left out and are only being mentioned by implication. If one doesn’t accept the implications of the sentences, by the time the narration is done, one can, strictly speaking, insist that the agent still has their eyes closed and that the door is still closed too; but to decode implicit content in a text, common sense and world knowledge have to be used, which is why, in a common sense reading, it is rather unlikely that the agent hasn’t opened their eyes as well as the door by the end of the narration. The question is how much importance one places on pragmatic aspects of a text when decoding it, and this question cannot be solved objectively.

Sentence 5: Question

In a narration, the question including the omitted piece of information has to be “What is the first thing you open then” or “What is the first thing you open after this happens”? And since we have to assume that the actions mentioned or implied occur in the order in which they are mentioned or implied, the only things the agent can open “after this happens” are new things, which haven’t been opened yet – be it explicitly or implicitly. This means that in a narrative reading that only accepts explicitly mentioned actions as having occurred, the first thing the agent opens could be anything from “the eyes” to the “wine bottle” or something that hasn’t been mentioned yet at all, and in a more common sense narrative reading which accepts the implication that to wake up one has to open one’s eyes and to find out who rings at the door one has to open the door and check, the first thing opened after the narration would have to be something new, something that hasn’t been opened yet, e.g. “the strawberry jam jar”, “the honey jar”, “the wine bottle”, “the cheese” or the window to let some fresh air in.

Depending on whether we read the text as a narrative or as a descriptive text and depending on whether we deem some of the information to be known by both the reader and the agent of the text or to be known only by the reader but not by the agent, we can allow different items to be the first thing the agent opens: “the eyes”, “the door”, “the fridge”, “the strawberry jam jar”, “the honey jar”, “the wine bottle”, “the cheese” or something else. This means that the riddle is not solvable and doesn’t fulfill its function as a riddle. The information given in the text prior to the question is not clear and allows various different readings. While this wouldn’t be a big deal in a text of the type “poem” or “fantasy story”, in a text of the type “riddle” it is. If a text violates Grice’s Maxims in the very build up to the question which has to be answered on its basis, it doesn’t fulfill its solvability function and is therefore defective.

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A lot of research into linguistic relativism revolves around questions which were once summarised in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This post consists of an essay I wrote a few years back when I was at university. It is a summary of the history of linguistic relativism, which outlines its main fields of research and their results. It is written in a rather boring, dense style, and I promised myself that I will soon reformulate it, so that people who are not used to reading this kind of essay can also learn something about linguistic relativism and how thought, language and culture might be interrelated. But for the time being, I only have this one. So, here goes:

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

This essay traces the history of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (SWH) [1] and explores current developments in linguistic relativity research. It also highlights an area for further research into the relationship between Language, Thought and Reality [2].


The SWH states that the structure and lexicon of a language influence how its speakers perceive the world (2,3). It is named after anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941). Linguistic relativism, however, had been around long before: in ancient Greece, Aristotle engaged with the idea that the structure of language reflects the structure of thought (4), and in 18th and 19th century Germany, linguistic relativity became the subject of philosophical enquiry amongst philosophers like Herder and von Humboldt, the latter considering thought and language inseparable and the diversity of languages reflecting a diversity of worldviews (3,5).

 Through studying the Inuit and in opposition to the ethnocentric evolutionism in American anthropology with its disdain for speakers of unwritten languages, anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) suggested that unwritten languages are as complex as written ones and that languages do not prevent speakers from acquiring concepts for which they lack words, because culture can shape language so that new thoughts can be expressed in it (7).

 Boas’ student Sapir believed that people’s worldviews are influenced by the tools their languages provide to interpret the world, stating:

 “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached.”(8)

 Whorf, who studied the lost writing systems of the Mayas and the languages of the Aztec and Hopi, was fascinated by the different concepts he believed speakers of different languages gain, claiming: “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages” (9,10,1).

 Neither Sapir nor Whorf suggested that a culture’s worldview is determined only by its language. Linguistic relativism as promoted by Boas, Sapir and Whorf emphasises that language, thought and culture are inextricably linked, each language containing its own worldview and the semantics of different languages being incommensurable (10,11).

 Whorf received much posthumous criticism. One of his critics, Lenneberg claimed that the mere presence of linguistic differences between cultures is no evidence for the presence of psychological differences [3] and that many of the conceptual differences Whorf found between Indian languages and English are due to awkward translations, with Whorf, for example, translating all different meanings of prefixes attached to Apache verbs and comparing such meaning sequences to the overall meaning of English sentences. According to Lenneberg, Whorf’s translations also distort the fact that language contains metaphors whose literal meanings speakers are unaware of (12). However, rendering the literal meanings of metaphors to show conceptual differences can be justified: while speakers may not be aware of a metaphor’s literal meaning, it can still shape their worldview.

 Pullum criticised Whorf for referring to Eskimo as having seven distinct words for snow [4] and for thereby misrepresenting Boas’ statement that Eskimo has distinct roots to form words related to snow just as English has morphologically distinct words for things related to water (14). Moreover, stating that – contrary to Whorf’s claim – Hopi uses spatial imagery to express temporal concepts, mainly through postpositions and adverbs, Malotki criticised Whorf for representing Hopi language as timeless and its speakers as having no concept of time (9,13).

 The Hypothesis

Neither Sapir nor Whorf stated a hypothesis. Against the background of Einstein’s relativity theory, Whorf wrote of a “linguistic relativity principle”, implying that thought and cognition, like space, time and mass, are relative – to the structures of the language with which they have evolved (1,9).

 What is referred to as the SWH goes back to Lenneberg and Brown, who reformulated Whorf’s “linguistic relativity principle” as a hypothesis:

 1. Structural differences between language systems will, in general, be paralleled by non-linguistic cognitive differences, of an unspecified sort, in the native speakers of the two languages.

2. The structure of anyone’s native language strongly influences or fully determines the worldview he will acquire as he learns the language. (6)

The SWH can be a weak claim stating that language facilitates or influences thought (linguistic relativism) or a strong claim stating that thought is entirely dependent upon language (linguistic determinism) (2,9).

Demise and Revival

Much criticism against the SWH came from cognitive psychology, which at the time held that concepts come first, with language only naming them, and from universal grammar, claiming that syntax is an innate human mechanism underlying all language. Their arguments – people’s difficulty to put thoughts into words, the fact that linguistic phenomena such as ambiguity, deixis and co-reference require extra-linguistic resources or that people can mentally rotate objects by using imagistic representations – concerned linguistic determinism, which was also disproved by the discovery of universal tendencies in colour categorisation, ethnobotanical nomenclature and kinship terms, suggesting that thought and perception cannot entirely depend on language (3,13,11). But evidence against linguistic determinism often served as an argument against all forms of the SWH, and when it was shown that a previous claim supporting it – that speakers of Chinese, which does not clearly mark counterfactuals, cannot recognise counterfactual arguments – was based on mistranslations, the SWH was completely discredited (13,15).

Its revival began in the 1970s, when researchers began to examine how language relates to non-linguistic phenomena like cognition, finding evidence for weaker forms of the SWH (16,3). In the 1990s, linguistic relativity research was inspired by Slobin’s “thinking for speaking” hypothesis, which holds that language influences thought whenever people think with the intention to speak, selecting aspects of their mental representations which are relevant for their specific language (3,17).

With growing evidence that human minds are modular and deal with various domain-specific tasks, the idea that specific aspects of language influence specific aspects of cognition gained ground (2). It was suggested that cognition is organised on three levels, the lowest involving physiological mechanisms, the highest being concerned with meaning, and thought processes in between relying significantly on language, translating visual or auditory input into symbolic meaning and instilling cognitive habits (18,15,3).

On the following pages, three areas of linguistic relativity research will be discussed: colour perception, spatial metaphors for time and numerical cognition.

Colour Perception

The question whether or not colour terms influence people’s perception and whether colour categories are determined arbitrarily or not has been the subject of much debate. Since we know today that many aspects of colour perception are influenced by neurophysiological factors, the area is not ideal for linguistic relativity research. Nevertheless, it has remained a major field and continues to yield interesting results (2,19).

In 1953, Lenneberg and Roberts found that speakers of Zuni, a language with only one word for yellow and orange, have more difficulty recalling these colours than English speakers, presumably because they lack terms for them (20). This was considered evidence for linguistic relativity. However, in 1969, Berlin and Kay, who studied colour perception in speakers of 20 different languages, discovered universal patterns, claiming that colour terms in all languages emerged from 11 focal colours, which evolved in a five-stage process, with black and white appearing first, red second, yellow, green and blue third, brown fourth, and purple, pink, orange and grey fifth, so that languages with only two colour terms always have words for black and white and languages with three colour terms words for black, white and red (19,21). This view became predominant despite the fact that its empirical basis was rather questionable: the set of participants often contained only one bilingual person per language and the 11 colour terms miraculously corresponded to the most frequent American-English terms in Thorndike’s “Teacher’s Handbook” [5] (15).

In 1972, Heider confirmed the universalist account in a study of Dani, a New Guinea language with only 2 colour terms – light and dark: Dani speakers memorised focal colours better than non-focal ones despite lacking terms for them and behaved in cognitive tasks as if they had the English system. Heider claimed that colour memory was influenced not by language but by perceptual salience. Heider’s material was later found to be biased, with focal colours being more saturated than non-focal ones. Using a new test array, Lucy and Shweder, in 1979, proved Heider wrong and claimed that colour recognition was based not on focality but on the availability of colour terms (15,3).

Moreover, in 1999, Davidoff et al. (22), who studied Berinmo, a Papua New Guinea language, found categorical colour perception at language-defined boundaries and concluded that there are no universal foci. They claimed that different category boundaries in Berinmo and English correlate with and possibly cause differences in colour memory, learning and discrimination (22,19).

The debate about universal tendencies versus relativity in colour naming has not been resolved yet. It is likely that universal forces determine colour naming and that the spectrum is not segmented arbitrarily, but that naming differences – where they exist – correlate with differences in colour memory, learning and discrimination (19).

Moreover, recent findings suggest that brain organisation may be relevant for linguistic relativity research, with colour names influencing colour perception mainly in the left hemisphere (19): in a recent study, Gilbert et al. (24) presented participants with coloured squares, one of which, the target, had a different colour than the rest. They found that participants identified targets faster across lexical categories than within them (e.g. a blue amongst greens versus a green amongst greens of a different hue). But this effect only occurred when stimuli were presented to the right visual field (RVF), with visual fields projecting contra-laterally to the cerebral hemispheres and the LH – in right-handed individuals – being specialised for language. The effect disappeared with verbal interference tasks – remembering eight-digit numbers – but not with spatial ones. Gilbert et al. concluded that language influences colour discrimination in the RVF but not in the LVF and that this lateralisation has a verbal basis, with language activating lexical codes online (24).

Drivonikou et al. (25) examined the boundaries between blue and green, blue and purple as well as blue and pink and found that colour discrimination across lexical categories was faster than within categories and that this effect was stronger for stimuli displayed in the RVF, but – unlike Gilbert et al. – they also found a significant, albeit weaker, category effect in the LVF. This LVF/RH effect could be language-based like the RVF/LH effect, but would have to cross the corpus callosum to reach the RH, which would explain why it is weaker. This explanation is supported by the longer response times in Drivonikou et al.’s study and by another study on a Korean colour boundary, in which fast participants showed category effects only in the RVF/LH, whereas slow participants showed them in both visual fields (26).

Another explanation is that category effects in the LVF/RH may reflect universal categorical colour discrimination, which may also be present in infants (25). Although the existence of pre-linguistic categorical colour perception is controversial, some researchers speculate that, if it exists, pre-linguistic categories could be a starting point for the elaboration of linguistic categories. Toddlers appear to have categorical perception for stimuli displayed in the LVF instead of the RVF, and the shift from the LVF to the RVF could be caused by the acquisition of colour terms (19). Franklin et al. (27) studied two groups of children – learners, who had not yet learned colour terms, and namers, who already knew these terms – and found that learners showed categorical perception in the LVF but not in the RVF, whereas namers showed categorical perception in the RVF but not in the LVF, suggesting that it is the acquisition of colour terms that causes the shift. The fact that split-brain patients show no trace of categorical perception in the LVF/RH suggests that pre-linguistic categories would be completely erased after such a shift (27,19).

Lateralised language-dependent perception may not be limited to colours: Gilbert et al. (28) also found a RVF/LH versus LVF/RH asymmetry when using animal silhouettes as stimuli: when stimuli were presented in the RVF, participants were faster at identifying targets across lexical categories and slower at identifying targets within categories (e.g. a cat amongst dogs versus a cat amongst other cats). Again, the effect decreased with verbal interference tasks but not with spatial ones. On a perceptual account, it is possible that the visual input activates a lexical representation, which, through feedback mechanisms, changes the perception of the input, so that the activation of “dog” makes the stimulus look more like a prototypical dog. Within the same lexical category, target identification becomes difficult, because stimuli that look like a prototype are similar to each other, but between categories, identification is easier, because cats and dogs have different prototypes. It is also possible that, on a post-perceptual account, a lexical difference complements a perceptual difference and thus accelerates target identification between categories, whereas the same name for targets and distractors competes with perceptual differences, slowing identification down (28). Further research shall reveal which linguistic effects found in colour perception generalise to other aspects of cognition and which ones are unique to colours (19).

Spatial Metaphors for Time

With increasing evidence that some aspects of colour perception are influenced by neurophysiological constraints, linguistic relativity researchers began to ask whether the influence of language on thought may be greater for abstract concepts like time. They began to study how speakers of different languages perceive and metaphorically conceptualise time. In language, time is often represented in spatial metaphors, but it is not entirely clear whether people only use them when speaking about time or whether they also mentally represent time in spatial terms (29,30).

Casasanto & Boroditsky (29) carried out a series of non-linguistic experiments and found an asymmetrical relationship between space and time, with temporal language depending much more on spatial metaphors than spatial language depends on temporal representations: people are perfectly able to ignore temporal information when gauging distances but cannot ignore spatial information when gauging duration.

While spatiotemporal metaphors may be universal, the specific space/time mappings vary across languages: English speakers, for example, linguistically represent the future as lying in front of themselves and Mandarin speakers as lying below themselves (13). The Aymara of South America, together with speakers of Quechua, metaphorise the future as lying behind and the past as lying in front of themselves. “Qhipa uru”means “back days” and describes the days to come based on the idea that one can see the past but not the future, the word nayra” for “front” also meaning “eye”/“sight”. Aymara speakers also use gestures to behind themselves when speaking about the future, suggesting that this is not a mere linguistic metaphor but a cognitive reality for them (31,32).

A rare representation of time is that of the Pormpuraawans, an Australian aboriginal community, who represent time according to cardinal directions, moving from east to west like the sun. When asked by Boroditsky and Gaby (33)to arrange pictures showing progression (e.g. a man at different ages) in the correct temporal order, Pormpuraawans did not arrange them in relation to themselves but with earlier stages in the east and later ones in the west. Gestures to the east accompanying their talk about past events indicate that they also mentally represent time this way. As shown in previous studies with speakers of languages with absolute terms for directions, Pormpuraawans are extremely good at staying oriented: all Pormpuraawans studied were able to point north, south, east or west correctly within a 20° range, whereas only 36 % of Americans pointed correctly within a 60° range, the rest being either 45-90° off compass or completely unable to indicate any direction at all.

Instead of relying on gestures showing that people mentally represent time in the spatial metaphors of their native languages, Casasanto (13) carried out psychophysical experiments comparing time perception in English speakers, who frequently represent time as a distance (“a long time”) and only rarely as a volume (“saving time in a bottle”), and in Greek speakers, who often speak about time in terms of volumes, using the words “megalos” (large, big) or “poli” (much). English and Greek speakers had to estimate the duration of brief events, which were presented along with distracting information – a container gradually filling up or a line growing across a screen. Distracted by interfering distance information, English speakers judged events involving long lines to last longer than events of the same duration involving short lines, whereas Greek speakers, distracted by the container filling, judged events involving full containers to last longer than events of the same duration involving less full containers.

The ability to estimate brief durations, given that pre-linguistic infants and animals also have it, cannot evolve through the use of temporal metaphors in language alone, as some relativists suggest. While some representations must exist pre-linguistically in both dimensions, pre-linguistic temporal representations may not be good enough for thinking about time the way adult humans do. The laws of physics being the same everywhere in the world, Casasanto suggests that pre-linguistic concepts of time as a distance and of time as a volume may exist in all infants and that language-specific mappings become reinforced and predominant as we speak (13). As far as space is concerned, McDonough et al. (34) found that English and Korean babies aged 9 months can make spatial distinctions for both English and Korean, whereas babies aged 18 months have lost this ability. Further research shall reveal if a similar pattern also exists for time.

Numerical Cognition

When it comes to linguistic influences on numerical cognition, researchers have pointed out that there is an important difference between linguistic influences on processes in which language serves as input/output material and influences on processes that are overlearned (e.g. simple mathematical operations), the latter persisting even when no language is involved. The finding, for example, that the digit memory span of Welsh speakers is shorter than that of English speakers is not considered strong evidence for the SWH, because the memory span depends on the length of stimuli, and Welsh digit names are longer than English ones (15).

However, some studies found language-specific differences in number processing which could not entirely be explained by mere production problems: children speaking Belgian-French, for example, which has a simpler number system than Standard French, make fewer mistakes in number production than same-aged French children: saying “sixty-ten” (soixante-dix) for 70, “four-twenty” (quatre-vingt) for 80 and “four-twenty-ten” (quatre-vingt-dix) for 90, as Standard-French speakers do, does impede children’s performance in number processing (35,15).

Another example for linguistic relativity in numerical cognition is related to the simple number systems of Asian languages: while Western languages have irregular names for teens and decades, many Asian languages have a regular base-10 system with teens described as two-digit numbers (ten one, ten two) and decades as numbers with the ten’s names multiplied (two ten, three ten). While “13” means thirteen individual items for English speakers, it means a 10 + 3 items for Asians, which helps Asian children understand numbers faster: when they have to represent tens and units with blocks, they use two different types of blocks for tens and units, whereas same-aged Western children represent them with an equivalent amount of unit blocks (15,36).

Another study into linguistic influences on numerical cognition was carried out by Brysbaert et al. (15), who tested French and Dutch speakers who had to add two-digit and one-digit operands (e.g. 24+1) presented either verbally or in Arabic numbers. In French, the word order for two-digit numbers corresponds to the way in which the number is written (24 = vingt-quatre, twenty-four), whereas in Dutch, the word order between the unit and the ten is reversed (24 = vierentwintig, four-and-twenty). While Brysbaert et al. did find language differences, these differences disappeared when participants typed their answers instead of uttering them, suggesting that the differences were due to the fact that language was used as input/output material and that mathematical operations as such are not based on verbal processes.

Brysbaert et al.’s findings do not invalidate relativist claims that language can facilitate or impede access to numerical concepts. The above mentioned examples come from fully literate and numerate societies. However, simple mathematical concepts might not be grasped by speakers of Oksapmin of Papua New Guinea, for example, whose counting system has no base structure, relies on body part analogies and only goes up to 27 [6], or by the Pirahã,an Amazonian hunter-gatherer tribe, who only distinguish between one, two and many, and even for these concepts only use comparative or relative expressions, hói” meaning ”small size”, “hoí” meaning “somewhat larger size” and ”baagiso” meaning “many” (38,39,40,41).

Pirahã speakers probably pose the greatest challenge to linguistic universalism. Their language lacking words for exact numbers, Pirahã cannot perform simple numerical tasks (38,39). In an experiment involving everyday objects such as batteries, Gordon (38) had Pirahã carry out various numerical tasks such as looking at an array of batteries and recreating the same array or drawing a line for each battery displayed, which was a difficult task for them, because they do not write or draw. Participants’ numerical cognition turned out to be strongly influenced by their lack of numerical language: while they performed accurately in tasks involving 2 or 3 items, their performance deteriorated in tasks involving 4-10 items. However, their answers increased with increasing set sizes, suggesting that they used the analog magnitude system, one of the two signatures humans and some animals have to estimate quantities without counting, the other being the parallel-individuation system. Used for large approximate quantities, the analog system enables estimations and shows a constant coefficient of variation, with errors relative to the set size, whereas the parallel-individuation system for small numbers is precise and quick but only enables identification of up to three items (38,39).

In a similar experiment, American English speakers were tested alongside Pirahã, while a verbal interference task was imposed to prevent number rehearsal, Frank et al. (40) demonstrated that when their verbal resources are occupied, English speakers show similar results in matching tasks as Pirahã. They had Pirahã and English speakers carry out a one-to-one matching task (participants saw a certain number of spools of thread placed evenly spaced in a line and had to lay out the same line using the same quantity of un-inflated balloons), an uneven matching task (the spools were grouped into irregular sets), an orthogonal matching task (the line of spools stretched away from participants), a hidden matching task (participants had to replicate the line of spools after the experimenter had concealed it) and a nuts-in-a-can task (participants watched the experimenter put a certain number of spools into an opaque container before they had to do the same) (40,41). For simple one-to-one and uneven matching tasks – even with more than 3 items – Frank et al. did not replicate Gordon’s findings: they were easy for both English and Pirahã speakers, suggesting that one-to-one matching, which only requires the understanding that one item more or less makes a difference to the quantity of a set, is possible without numerical language. However, Frank et al. did find that Pirahã have difficulty with tasks requiring memory for exact quantities: in orthogonal and hidden matching tasks, information has to be transferred across time and space, and although these tasks were more difficult for both Pirahã and English speakers, Pirahã speakers performed worse, presumably because English speakers used various strategies to mitigate their difficulty. Without number language, the nuts-in-a-can task was extremely difficult for both Pirahã and English speakers and a statistical evaluation of their results suggests that both used the analog magnitude system (40).

Frank et al. suggest that number words serve as tools to store information through abstraction: language may not alter numerical representations but it can help speakers carry out cognitive tasks by facilitating information storage and processing. Having a concept of exact quantities does not depend on language but having a memory for such quantities does (41).

According to Everett (42), the cause of the Pirahã’s inability to perform numerical tasks is not their language per se but their culture, which influences and restricts language and possibly cognition. Everett claims that one strong value of Pirahã culture, a restriction of communication to speakers’ immediate experience, affects every aspect of Pirahã life and is the reason why they have not developed creation myths, have no collective memory of more than two generations past and do not draw or write. If Everett is to be believed[7], this immediacy constraint also affects Pirahã language, which is the only language in the world without colour terms, has the simplest pronoun and kinship systems and, most interestingly, has no recursion. A language that lacks recursion poses a serious challenge to universalism: Chomsky and colleagues present recursion as the defining property of the “human language faculty”, as its only element unique to language, unique to humans and universally present in all human language (44).

However, Everett claims that linguistic relativity, which he sees as inherently unidirectional, cannot account for his findings either, because it fails to recognise the important role culture plays in shaping language (42). While Everett may be right about the SWH as defined by Lenneberg and Brown, which, indeed, does not explicitly mention mutual influences of language and culture, the forefathers of linguistic relativism, in their writings, did advocate a dynamic system in which language, culture and thought influence each other mutually (45).

An Area for Further Research

Much research into linguistic relativity focuses on semantics and categorisation. This is not surprising given that the SWH experienced its demise at the hands of universal grammar, which considers syntax to be the same in all humans, and its revival thanks to cognitive linguists and psychologists who believed that language is connected to the meanings it has evolved to express (2,16). However, syntax should not be neglected by linguistic relativity research. It would, for example, be interesting to see whether highly recursive languages improve speakers’ memory or their ability to understand complex arguments and whether languages with little or no recursion such as that of the Pirahã prevent speakers from gaining such abilities.While syntax has long been looked at as an innate universal structure, it is time for research to look at the syntactic structures of individual languages and examine how they relate to the way in which people structure their thoughts.


(1) Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought and Reality, Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Introduction by John B. Carroll Ed. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

(2) Stanford University: Last Access: 8/2/2010

 (3) Gentner, D. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). Whither Whorf. In Language in Mind: Advances in the study of language and thought, Eds. Dedre Gentner, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

(4) Allan, K. (2004). Aristotle’s footprints in the linguist’s garden. Language Sciences, 26, 4, 317-342.

(5) Wilhelm von Humboldt in:

Hennigfeld, J. (1976). Sprache als Weltansicht.Humboldt – Nietzsche – Whorf. Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, 30, 3, 435-451 Last Access: 8/2/2011

 (6) Kay, P. & Kempton, W. (1984). What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? inAmerican Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 86, No., 65-79, on: Last Access: 8/2/2011

 (7) Boas, F. (1911) in Introduction to Handbook to American Indian Languages by Franz Boas & Indian Linguistic Families in America North of Mexico by J.W. Powell. (1966). University of Nebraska Press, page 63.

 (8) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Last Access: 8/2/2011

 (9) Malotki, E. (1983). Hopi Time: A linguistic analysis of the temporal concepts in the Hopi language. Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Mongraphs.

 (10) Zelazo, D., Moscovitch, M. & Thompson, E., (2007). The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, Cambridge University Press, page 640

 (11) Gumperz, J. J. & Levinson, S. C. (1991). Rethinking linguistic relativity. Current Anthropology, 32(5), 613-623. Last Access: 8/2/2011

 (12) Lenneberg, E.H. (1953). Cognition in Ethnolinguistics. Language.
Vol. 29, No. 4, 463-471 Last Access: 8/2/2011

 (13) Casasanto, D. (2008). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic Differences in Temporal Language and Thought. Language Learning 63-79. /WhoS_Afraid_of_the_Big_Bad_Whorf_Crosslinguistic_Differences_In_Temporal_Language_and_Thought Last Access: 7/2/2011

(14) Pullum, G. (1991). The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. University of Chicago Press. Last Access:8/2/2011

see also

Pullum and Liberman’s “Language Log”: Last Access: 8/2/2011

 (15) Brysbaert, M., Fias, W. & Noël, M.P. (1998). The Whorfian hypothesis and numerical cognition: is “twenty-four” processed in the same way as “four-and-twenty”. Cognition, 66,1, 51-77.

 (16) International Cognitive Linguistics Association Last Access: 8/2/2011

 (17) Clark, E.V. (2003). Language and Representations. In Language in Mind: Advances in the study of language and thought, Eds. Dedre Gentner, Susan Goldin-Meadow, 2003 MIT.

(18) Hunt & Agnoli (1991). The Worfian hypothesis: A cognitive psychology perspective. Psychological Review, 98, 3, 377-389.

 (19) Regier, T. & Kay, P. (2009). Language, thought and colour: Whorf was half right. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 13, 10, 439-446.

 (20) Lenneberg and Roberts (1953). The Denotata of Color Terms. Paper presented at the Linguistic Society of America, Bloomington, Indiana.

 (21) Berlin, B. & Kay, P. (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley University of California. In Wilson, R. A., Keil, F.C. (1999). The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, page 2.

 (22) Davidoff, J., Davies, I. & Roberson, D. (1999) Colour categories in a stone-age tribe, Nature, 402, 604-604

(23) Berlin & Kay. Science ≠ Imperialism: A response to B. A. C. Saunders and J. van Brakel’s “Are there non-trivial constraints on colour categorization?” (draft for Brain and Behavioral Sciences) on: Last Access: 7/2/2011

 (24) Gilbert, A.L., Regier, T., Kay, P. & Ivry, R.B. (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103,489-494.

 (25) Drivonikou, G.V., Kay, P., Regier, T., Ivry, R.B., Gilbert, A.L., Franklin, A. & Davies, I.R.L. (2007). Further evidence that Whorfian effects are stronger in the right visual field than in the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 1097–1102

(26) Roberson, D., Pak, H. & Hanley, J.R. (2008). Categorical perception of colour in the left and right visual field is verbally mediated: Evidence from Korean. Cognition, 752-762.

(27) Franklin, A., Drivonikou, G. V.,  Bevis, L., Davies, I. R. L.,  Kay, P. & Regier, T. (2008). Categorical perception of color is lateralized to the right hemisphere in infants, but to the left hemisphere in adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Last Access: 10/2/2011

(28) Gilbert, A.L., Regier, T., Kay, P. & Ivry, R.B. (2008). Support for lateralization of the Whorf effect beyond the realm of color discrimination. Brain and Language 105, 91

(29) Casasanto, D. & Boroditsky, L. (2008). Time in the mind: Using space to think about time. Cognition 106, 579–593

 (30) Casasanto, D. (2009). When is a Linguistic Metaphor a Conceptual Metaphor? In New Directions in Cognitive Linguistics. Vyvyan Evans & Stéphanie Pourcel, Eds.,  Vol. 24, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam, Philadelphia.         Last Access: 9/2/2011

(31) Núñez, R.E. & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time. Cognitive Science, 30, 1–49.

 (32) Webster’s Online Dictionary: Last Access: 9/2/2011

 (33)Boroditsky, L. & Gaby, A. (2010) Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community. Psychological Science November, 21,16351639.

(34) McDonough, L., Choi, S. & Mandler,J.M. (2003) Understanding spatial relations: Flexible infants, lexical adults. Cognitive Psychology 46, 229-259.

 (35) Seron, X. and Fayol, M. (1994). Number transcoding in children: a functional analysis. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12, 281–300.

 (36)Geary, D.C., (1996). International differences in mathematical achievement: their nature, causes, and consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science 5, 133–137.

(37) Saxe. G.B. & Esmonde, I. (2005). Studying Cognition in Flux: A Historical Treatment of Fu in the Shifting Structure of Oksapmin Mathematics. Mind, Culture and Activity, 12(3&4),171-225               Last Access: 9/2/2011

 (38) Gordon, P. (2004). Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia. Science, 306,15. Last Access: 6/2/2011

 (39) Hespos, S.J. (2004). Language: Life without Numbers. Current Biology, Vol. 14, R927–R928.       Last Access:6/2/2011

 (40) Frank, M.C., Fedorenko, E., Gibson, E. (2008). Language as a cognitive technology: English-speakers match like Pirahã when you don’t let them count.,Fedorenko,Gibson%202008.pdf      Last Access: 15/1/2011

 (41) Frank, M.C., Everett, D.L., Fedorenko, E., Gibson, E. (2008). Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition 108, 819–824.

(42) Everett, D.L. (2005). Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã. Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language. Current Anthropology, 46, 4.

 (43) Pullum, G. (2004). The Straight Ones. Dan Everett on the Pirahã. on “Language Log”: Last Access: 17/2/2011

 (44) Hauser, M., Chomsky, N. & Fitch, W. T. (2002). The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298, 1569-79.

(45) see for example: Boas, F. (1911) in Introduction to Handbook to American Indian Languages by Franz Boas &, Indian Linguistic Families in America North of Mexico by J.W. Powell. (1966). University of Nebraska Press, page 63.

Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought and Reality, Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Introduction by John B. Carroll Ed. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, page 156.

 Yee, N. What Whorf Really Said. Last Access: 17/2/2011


[1]              Today, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is often – and perhaps more accurately – referred to as the “Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis” or the “Linguistic Relativity Principle”. However, for reasons of simplicity, the author of this essay will use the term “Sapir Whorf Hypothesis” or its acronym “SWH”.

[2]           This is the title of a book containing selected writings by Benjamin Lee Whorf published by Lewis Carroll in 1956 (1).

[3]              With this statement, Lenneberg pointed out what became a frequent problem of linguistic relativity research that fails to take extra-linguistic data into account. Relativist Casasanto put it like this: “The only evidence that people who talk differently also think differently is that they talk differently” (13).

[4]           This claimtriggered an urban legend, with authors, over the years, inflating the number to up to 400 and even more and when disproved led to the creation of the neologism “snowclone” (14).

[5]           Berlin and Kay claim that they never made reference to this book. While this may be true, it is not what was originally pointed out by Saunders and van Brakel in their paper “Are there non-trivial constraints on colour categorization?”. What has been said is that their focal colour terms corresponded to the most frequent colour terms in this book, which suggests that American English terms were used as a standard (see 23). 

[6]           Through contact with other language communities, many Oksapmin today use words of Tok Pisin, one of Papua New Guinea’s national languages, for numbers and currency. Moreover, Oksapmin has also evolved to allow for slightly more complex calculations (37).

[7]           See Pullum’s comments on Language Log (43).

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Language has always been with me. As long as I can remember. My earliest memory is that of my brother teaching me my first word – “Uhu”, the German word for “eagle owl” – showing me a picture of said bird on a Pairs card. I can almost feel the sense of achievement I must have had when I made the connection between a set of sounds, U-H-U, and a bird and somehow understood that they belonged together.

Language, of all phenomena in the world, has been the one I’ve spent the most time contemplating – language as a universal phenomenon that separates us humans from other animals, and language as a form of expression for cultures, families and individuals; language as a foundation of memory and consciousness, an intellectual tool, which enables us to conquer and explore the world understanding, and languages as cultural products and shapers of thoughts and worldviews…

Language, all my life, has given me comfort and happiness: exploring grammar and seeing phenomena that may be universal makes me feel connected to other language speakers, other humans; and discovering a new culture through the window that is this culture’s language gives me the freedom of a traveller, even if my travel only takes place in my mind, through a window built of words and syntax.

Countless hours have I spent learning vocabularies and collocations, the ways of saying things in different places, figures of speech and false friends, and I don’t regret a second of it. Not the time when I was that little girl curious to discover the meanings behind the colourful codes that different languages had for the same things – “Milch lait latte”-; not the time when I honed my language skills, eager to become a great translator; not the nights I spent studying sentence structures, production and comprehension in an effort to understand the psychology of language. These were hours filled with happiness.

And still today, I experience enormous joy when I come across an evocative word in a foreign language, the Italian “antilopi saltanti” for “springboks” for example, or when I think of the cute fact that in Arabic the words for “plane” and “bird” are almost the same; and common first names in my native language such as “Urs” and “Kurt” – “bear” and “wolf” in French and Turkish – have received new meanings, which every now and then, when I think of it, will put a smile on my face.


Language has always been in my life. It is what makes me feel alive, what intimately connects me to the world and other humans. The day I die, my last thoughts may be about the people I love or the regrets I have, but language will be there at my deathbed too, maybe just silently, just as a few scattered words with no syntax in my mind, but it will be the one love that has been with me from the beginning till the end, and I will be reduced to nothingness when my language is gone.

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