Language, Culture, and Mind: The Relativist Perspective

According to Foley (1997), “relativists claim that knowledge is obtained through culturally-mediated conceptual schemes, i.e. historically-situated, contingent frameworks of meaning and understanding. These are made up of folk and scientific theories, linguistic and cultural categories, and social practices which we acquire as a result of the trajectory of our life experience, situated in a particular culture, language, space, and time” (169). Building on this quote, this essay attempts to discuss how the relativist perspectives account for similarities and differences in human knowledge and culture. In order to do this, this essay will discuss Foley’s writings on the matter at hand as well as “You Are What You Speak” by Guy Deutscher which supports Foley’s position on relativism.

In its most extreme version, relativism claims that “nature… may place no constraints on the possible trajectories of human life” (Foley 1997:169) and argues that one of the most influential forms of relativism is that of neo-Kantianism. According to this approach, “mental categories impose order on sensible experience” (Foley 1997:169). A relativistic neo-Kantian doctrine, however, drops Kant’s notion that such categories are innate and universal (Foley 1997). Therefore, since the categories existing in various languages and cultures tend to differ, Foley argues that “each language or culture will impose different coherent orders, resulting in contrastive ranges of sensible experiences of the Natives of these languages” (1997:170). This view is to a certain degree reflected in “You Are What You Speak” by Guy Deutscher, who maintains that “when your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details… and to certain aspects of experience” (2010:45). For instance, according to Deutscher (2010), various studies have recently shown that grammatical gender can forge the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. To prove his point, Deutscher provides a brief description of an experiment, in which psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. In German and Spanish there exist many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. In the course of the study it turned out that when participants were asked to grade various objects on a range of traits, Spanish speakers tended to think of bridges, clocks, and violins as exhibiting more “manly” characteristics, whereas Germans deemed them “more slender or elegant” (Deutscher 2010:45), that is – more feminine. The way speakers of German and Spanish viewed certain objects was shaped by the way inanimate objects were “gendered” in their respective languages. However, Deutscher (2010) argues that the language of space is the area that provides the most compelling proof for the impact language has on thought. According to the study of an Australian aboriginal language, Guugu Yimithiir, whose speakers use such coordinates as “north” or “south” instead of, for instance, “left” or “right”, in order to describe the position of objects, “the convention of communicating with geographic coordinates compels speaker from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from physical environment” (Deutscher 2010:46). As a result of this convention, children who grow up speaking Guugu Yimithiir start using geographic directions as early as age 2 (Deutscher 2010). This, on the other hand, provides evidence to Foley’s statement that relativism holds that cultural practices, such as “gendering” a bridge as feminine in German or saying “east” instead of “left” in Guugu Yimithiir, “play a crucial and determinative role in cognition” (1997:177).

AD: A picture of a chalkboard with greetings in different languages written on it.

In a similar vein, Foley (1997) discusses the Principle of Linguistic Relativity, according to which a language, and specifically its structure and grammar, influences the way a speaker observes, interprets, and evaluates the world. Simply speaking, it means that different people view the world in different ways and that none of these views is more or less “correct”. Therefore, in the Boasian tradition, which is closely associated with the Principle of Linguistic Relativity, “speakers of different languages, of diverse structures and systems…, are led by these linguistic frames of reference to differing construals of experience of the world” (Foley 1997:214). The Boasian tradition was further developed by Whorf and Sapir. Whorf contributed the concept of cryptotypes, which are covert classes of words with elusive meanings that are revealed through their combination with other words, such as a noun’s gender in English. Whorf believed that cryptotypes “reveal the guiding force of semantics in linguistic categorization”, and that “semantic organization is central to the Principle of Linguistic Relativity” (Foley 1997:200). Therefore, semantics influence (or, maybe, even create) the way we view the world. Another Whorf’s contribution to the Principle of Linguistic Relativity was the idea of “cognitive appropriation” which can be defined as “the use in thought for its own end of a structure of relations deriving from some other domain” (Foley 1997:203). Whorf illustrated his point with an example concerning empty gasoline drums. He noticed that empty gasoline drums are handled by people with less care than full ones, even though both empty and full drums pose a great risk to anyone in their vicinity. This happens because people, in this case, speakers of English, are “led astray by the polysemy of the word ‘empty’” (Foley 1997:203). Another linguist, Lucy, who also contributed to the Boasian tradition of linguistic relativity, elaborated on this idea by specifying that in the case of gasoline drums the word “empty” has the following meanings: 1. “container no longer contains intended contents” and 2. “null and void, negative, inert” (Foley 1997:202). This second meaning leads people to treat “empty” gasoline drums as potentially harmless.

Sapir, in turn, added a structuralist view to the Boasian tradition. He claimed that language is “a coherent system of interlocking sets of subsystems” (Foley 1997:196). In other words, Sapir argued that the world is experienced through social and cultural elements, which are based on one’s language modes (Foley 1997).

Despite his focus on the Principle of Linguistic Relativity, Boas also accounted for certain similarities existing in ways speakers of different languages see and experience the world. As a result, he developed the doctrine of the psychic unity of humanity, according to which “the range of individuals’ abilities do not vary across cultures” (Foley 1997:195). He claimed that “apparent differences in linguistic sophistication do not reflect cognitive differences, merely different emphases of their cultures” (Foley 1997:195). This idea is supported by Guy Deutscher in “You Are What You Speak”. He points out that “our mother tongue does not constrain our minds and prevent us from being able to think certain thoughts” (Deutscher 2010:44). Despite our language and cultural differences, we are still able to understand a concept that, for instance, does not exist in our own language (Deutscher 2010). I believe that in the time, when the majority of people, including anthropologists, were adamant that some people (usually those belonging to a different race or speaking a different language) were utterly inferior, the doctrine of the psychic unity of humanity developed by Boas must have sounded almost revolutionary.

The relativist view of language poses many challenges to linguistic anthropologists. In my opinion, the most important one is the question of incommensurability and, ultimately, translation: How do we translate concepts or ideas that are entirely absent from our own language? Foley believes that the answer to this question lays in the idea of the “bridgehead”, which he defines as “a broad background of shared beliefs and understandings common to all by virtue of being human persons” (1997:177), although he also admits that this is a very vague category. To conclude, the fact that many literary works around the world are translated with great success from one language to another, sometimes as distant as, for instance, Arabic and Polish, gives us hope, that despite our different languages, despite differing grammar structures that we use on a daily basis, despite the fact that some of us use the word “east” to demonstrate what others understand as “left”, people still can communicate and share their unique experiences shaped by their mother tongues with each other.


Deutscher, Guy. 2010. “You Are What You Speak.” The New York Times Magazine, August 29: 42-47.

Foley, William A. 1997. “On Relativist Understanding.” In Anthropological Linguistics. An Introduction, edited by William A. Foley, 169-178. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Foley, William A. 1997. “Linguistic Relativity and the Boasian Tradition.” In Anthropological Linguistics. An Introduction, edited by William A. Foley, 192-214. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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