Rethinking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: Role of language in shaping thought

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Traditionally, the issue of the relationship between language and thought has been framed as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in which crosslinguistic-crosscultural universality or diversity of thought has been the center of the debate. The long-lasting debate revolving around the hypothesis has not yielded a clear, satisfactory conclusion. This unsatisfactory result seems to be largely attributed to the fact that (a) the term "thought" has been so vaguely defined, and that (b) the interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis itself has been quite diverse among researchers. In this paper, I argue that the question we should ask is not whether thought is universal or different across different language groups. Instead, we should ask more specific (and realistic) questions, taking it for granted that our thought is constrained by innate language-independent cognitive faculties but at the same time a large part of our thought is shaped by language. The questions we should ask are: in what cognitive domains (e.g., spatial cognition, ontological knowledge, categorization of natural objects etc.), at what specific level (e.g., perception, memory, knowledge representation, on-line information processing) and in what degree (a) our thought is influenced by the specific structure of the given language (or is immune to it) and (b) our thought is shaped by language learning (or constrained by language-independent innate cognitive structure). In order to reevaluate the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in this new perspective, I reviewed literature mainly focusing on three distinctive cognitive domains: ontological knowledge with respect to individuation, categorization of natural objects, and spatial cognition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)415-433
Number of pages19
JournalShinrigaku Kenkyu
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2000 Dec


  • Categorization
  • Language and thought
  • Ontological knowledge
  • Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
  • Spatial cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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