I consider myself a neo-Whorfian and see major flaws in universal grammar, but it doesn't seem to me like they are truly competing theories. Cutting out all of the parts about how language is acquired and how language has universal features, universal grammar seems to be more like a file format on a computer, while the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the program that writes to that file.

There is a lot of evidence that language is influenced by culture and that thinking is influenced by language, but there is also a significant amount of evidence to indicate that human language has certain features, almost universally. It doesn't seem like these two theories actually conflict with each other, since they both explain similar but separate phenomena. Am I missing something here?

  • I agree that these two ideas (I wouldn't call them theories) don't necessarily conflict. Why do you think they may be in competition? Aug 6, 2012 at 5:21
  • A lot of material that I have read seems to pit the two against each other. As in, in one, languages have grammar in common because thats how the brain works, whereas in the other, the grammar we we is purely learned. This is especially the case with anything talking about Piraha. Aug 6, 2012 at 11:40
  • Also, I'm using theory not as in "it might be true," but rather the scientific term of "the theory of gravity." Since I can't fly, we know gravity is there, we just aren't sure why. Aug 6, 2012 at 11:41
  • I'm curious to know what are the things you've read that pit the two against each other? The 'Sapir-Whorf hypothesis' is not about 'learning grammar'; it's the claim that the grammatical categories in a language determine (or at least strongly influence) how the speaker perceives and categorises the world. The strong form of UG (ie Chomsky's) says there is a language module common to all human brains that has no function apart from language and underpins all human language. The contrast you describe sounds more like UG versus behaviourism. Aug 6, 2012 at 13:38
  • And yes, that's what I meant by 'theory' too. I wouldn't consider UG or the 'Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis' to be theories (in the scientific sense). Aug 6, 2012 at 13:41

2 Answers 2


Both proposals have undergone changes since they were proposed, and now each exists in multiple versions. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was originally understood to be a proposal that mental categories which are involved in cognitive tasks other than language use could be arbitrarily shaped by the language practices of a given community. Nobody who is interested in the issue at a professional level believes this anymore. Neo-Whorfianism, on the other hand, is a modern research program whose proponents believe that while there are strong biological constraints on cognition, there are some areas of cognition where a person's native language influences the way they conceptualize things. What are called Nativists do not believe that language can have any such influence: they believe instead that differences in thought processes can be explained in terms of factors such as a person's exposure to literacy, or the type of geographic locale, amongst other factors. To see an example of this kind of debate in the area of spatial cognition, consider the Neo-Whorfian study by Pederson et al (1998), and a similar Nativist-oriented study by Li & Gleitman (2002).

Nativists tend to subscribe to some form of the Universal Grammar hypothesis, while Neo-Whorfians tend not to. While all or nearly all linguists agree that there is something special about human brains that allows them to use langauge (cf. comments on Chomsky's "Rocks and Kittens" argument for UG), actual UG proponents believe that there are special cognitive abilities which have evolved in humans which are only used for language processing. This may lead (though logically it doesn't have to) to the belief that language processing may be "segregated" from other cognitive functions, and so there is no possibly that knowledge about language can interfere with other cognitive abilities. This is probably why most Nativists tend to be UG proponents. If one believes instead that language ability is tied to other types of cognitive abilities outside of the domain of language, then it is not so hard to see how language and non-language thinking patterns might influence each other at least a little bit.

Pederson, E., Danziger, E., Wilkins, D. P., Levinson, S. C., Kita, S., & Senft, G. (1998). Semantic typology and spatial conceptualization.Language 74(3), 557-589.

Li, P., & Gleitman, L. 2002. Turning the tables: Language and spatial reasoning. Cognition 83: 265-294.


For those interested in new Whorf manuscripts, see "The Benjamin Lee Whorf Legacy CD-ROM" edited by Peter C. Rollins at www.petercrollins.com This resource contains some papers by Whorf and a never-before-published novel by Whorf written during the Scopes Trial of 1925 and aimed at the putative conflict between science and religion.

Also on the CD-ROM are a number of articles and book-length works about Whorf by Rollins.

This resource provides a larger scope for studying Whorf and should be considered along with the John Carroll anthology that has been available since the 1950s.

Peter C. Rollins www.petercrollins.com

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