Linguistic Relativity: The Arabic take on the controversial issue? Part I

After so many deadlines to meet, a book chapter to complete, a conference to organize and a journal paper to write I have finally found time to put up a post I started writing last month! Before the next crazy deadlines I thought I better post this up in two parts. This is a topic I am very interested in and will begin serious work on it in the next few months- the idea that language is connected to the way we think.  About a year ago I read a book titled: ‘Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual Study’ (2000) by Malik Badri, there is a part in this book where the author focuses on the idea of the mind (Cognitive ability) and how language is one of the most influential possessions humans have when it comes to using the intellect or mind. He connects this to the controversial Sapir- Whorf hypothesis better known as the Linguistic Relativity theory (Whorf, 1956 and Sapir, 1921), which states that the language you speak shapes the way you think. The part I am discussing is a section of the chapter (I cannot put it up because of copyright laws) and I will quote some bits (in bold) as we discuss what the author is asserting in the section.  I think it juxtaposes the recent postings I have put about the fear of the demise of Arabic language in Arabic speaking countries. I make the emphasis of Arabic speaking countries because I think that there are some countries outside the Arab world in which Arabic is mastered at near-native levels by students to the point that they surpass those who regard Arabic as their first language (but once again that’s a topic for another blog). Finally, this post I think complements a recent post ‘Preservation of the Arabic language: revisited’, which proved very popular and I have received countless emails to put up more information ( this current post is one attempt of many to answer that call. At the end, I suggest some sources for further reading.  Before I forget I just realized that a short section of the chapter can be read on the following website:

Section theme: Language- the vehicle of contemplation

Although the author is not a linguist per se, his passages on the relationship between thought and language are well informed. He is a professor of psychology, a member of the British Psychological Association and the Muslim Mental Health Inc, he is well grounded in the Arabic language and Islamic history. His treatment of this subject is well executed and he takes on an interdisciplinary approach, which allows any researcher to have a big picture of the issues at hand and allows readers to conduct further research on the points raised. This is exactly what you will do after you read what he has to say about the Arabic language or rather the unique qualities of the Arabic language.

In a very simplified style, he begins his section with the acknowledgement that to directly link language and thought is a complex issue. But that recently, positive steps in the field of cognitive psychology have shown researchers that “language is not only a human being’s means of address and communication, but also the basic system used in thinking”.  I can imagine certain quarters of the linguistic world cringing at this statement, but the point he raises here based on research is valid, at least to a certain extent. He says that language allows for the human mind to create and visualize abstract concepts and perhaps if we did not have language that ability may not be available to us (you can refer to any linguistic work on language and the mind or language and thought for the most up-to-date findings on this topic see the suggestions below).  

“Some researchers, like Whorf who formulated the ‘linguistic relativity’ hypothesis, consider the characteristics of the language spoken by a certain group of people to be the factor that denoted how they think and how they visualize the realities they live. The structure and other aspects of language are therefore considered to be basic factors in the way a given society visualizes the world”.


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A strong statement to make and one that is very controversial in the world of linguistics. Skeptics would ask something like “does that then mean that if your language does not have a certain word that its speakers cannot understand that concept?”  This is one area of linguistics that excites me and I can read and read about it, because the idea is fascinating and perhaps has some truth in it? Such assumptions and statements have prompted linguists to seriously look at this issue; does language shape your worldview? And if so to what extent? Linguistic anthropologists and pyscholinguists have carried out much research as a way of verifying this idea or bringing evidence that does not support the theory. Studies in linguistic relativity have become very popular in recent years and more serious research and methods are employed with the intention of understanding the true nature of the relationship between language, thought and a speaker’s world view. Recent studies that have supported this theory are; Boroditsky, 2001; Bowerman, 1996; Davidoff et al., 1999; Gentner and Imai, 1997; Levinson, 1996; Lucy, 1992; Dehaene  et al., 1999.  Lera Boroditsky (2001 and more recent) is a huge supporter of the theory and has completed some research on the way people who speak different languages view space and time (hopefully I will address this in a separate post as a review of the topic and its academic treatment).  There are also studies that have shown contradictions to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, showing that language does not shape thought or at least affect a speaker’s worldview, for example; Heider, 1972; Malt et al., 1999; Li and Gleitman, 2002. Hopefully, with more modern methods of research and more accurate ways of verifying studies we will soon come to understand the reality of this issue.

I can understand and even see why George Orwell was so inspired by such a concept that he brought this to life in the form of ‘Newspeak’ a language in his 1949 masterpiece  ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’. In this novel he shows that this language replaces modern English (oldspeak) and in turn introduces new words in a bid to control the masses, for example the word ‘freedom’ is gradually lost and therefore its concept. Orwell says in the appendix of 1984: ‘It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought–that is, a thought diverging from the principles of [newspeak]…–should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words’.  Orwell’s view was very deterministic, to erase a word is to erase a concept and to introduce a word is to introduce a concept- is this the power of language? Can you think of any words in your language that are so powerful that they make you think in a particular way about its concept and overall meaning in relation to the world as you see it?

Issues to consider in relation to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis could be; the discrepancies of translating precisely from one language to another, the fact that some proverbs cannot even be understood in another language in light of their original sense. Or the intertwined relationship between synonyms in some languages and how these make up interesting semantic fields, especially in the Arabic language, the idea that one word can have such depth in its meaning that it is no longer an ordinary word for the speakers. To end, Badr maintains that  language shapes the thought of its speaker  through its grammar, words and structure.

In part two, I will conclude the rest of the passage, and bring in what the author says about Arabic and the Qur’an- so keep reading!



Badri, M (2000) ‘Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual Study’ CUP see it here:

Suggestions of what to readLinguistic Relativity (or sometimes referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis):

Lakoff, G ( 1987) ‘Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind’.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Lakoff, G and M. Johnson (1980) ‘ Metaphors we live by’ Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Lera Boroditsky- some of her work here:


Fiction that touches upon the Sapir- Whorf Hypothesis

1984- George Orwell (any good book shop)

Language and the mind:

Pinker, S (2007) ‘Language: The stuff of thought- language as a window into human nature’. New York: Penguin group

Pinker, S (1994) ‘The language Instinct’  London: Allen Lane