How Do Languages Shape the Way We Think?

Image courtesy of Live Science

Multiple questions concerning language remain unanswered and heated with debate. For instance, does language determine our thoughts or can we think independently without language?

While one may believe that speech is based on thoughts, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (also known as the Theory of Linguistic Relativity) suggests the opposite. According to linguists Edward Sarpir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, the grammatical structure and other features of a person’s language determine one’s thoughts and their persepctive of the world around them (Frothingham).  

There are many cases wherein words in one language cannot be directly translated to another.. For instance, the Tagalog adjective umay does not have a one-word translation in English but is typically used to describe food that gets tiring and becomes less appetizing. The word’s true meaning cannot be fully grasped by English speakers compared to the way that Tagalog native speakers understand it. 

The theory also mentions how languages filter and organizesour thoughts in categories. An example is the Kuuk Thaayore, an aboriginal community in Australia. Instead of using “left” and “right” in their language, they rather describe everything using cardinal directions. For example, a member of this community would say phrases such as “There is an ant on your southwest leg” and “Which way are you going?” as an opening greeting instead of “Hello”. Therefore, people who speak Kuuk Thaayore and other languages that similarly describe with cardinal directions are known to be well-oriented (“How Language” 00:02:31 – 00:03:49).

Additionally, one’s ability to do mathematical computations and distinguish between different colors depends on one’s language as well. While English has limited names for different colors—under the umbrella term “blue” there are only vague terms like “light blue” or “dark blue”—Russian has specific names such as “goluboy” for light blue and “siniy” for dark blue. Consequently, Russian speakers can more quickly sense a categorical change between light and dark blues than English speakers.  (“How Language” 00:06:47 – 00:07:57). For instance, an English speaker may recognize 10 shades of pink in the image below, but more may be recognized by speakers of languages that have more terms for different shades of color. 

Figure 1. How Many Color Shades Do You See? Source: The Sun.

How many colours do YOU see? Optical illusion has divided internet again |  The US Sun

Another case is gendered languages. The English word “bridge” is feminine in German (die Brücke) and masculine in Spanish (el puente). Whereas German speakers describe a bridge using “feminine” adjectives such as “beautiful” and “elegant,” Spanish speakers use “masculine” adjectives such as “strong” and “long” (“How Language” 00:08:40 – 00:08:56).

Article by Macy, Grade 11

Works Cited

Frothingham, Mia Belle. “Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis.” Simply Psychology, 14 Jan.

     2022, Accessed 6 Oct.


“How Language Shapes the Way We Think | Lera Boroditsky.” YouTube, uploaded by

     TED, 2 May 2018, Accessed 7 Oct. 2022.

“How Many Colour Shades Do You See?” The Sun, 10 Feb. 2021,

     lifestyle/tech-old/2306771/pink-stripe-optical-illusion/. Accessed 7 Oct.


“Language and Thought.” Live Science, 28 Feb. 2017, The Strange ‘McGurk’ Effect:

     How Your Eyes Can Affect What You Hear. Accessed 7 Oct. 2022.