Among Whorf's well known examples of linguistic relativity are examples of instances where an indigenous language has several terms for a concept that is only described with one word in English and other European languages (Whorf used the acronym SAE "" to allude to the rather similar grammatical structures of the well-studied European languages in contrast to the much more diverse less studied languages). One of Whorf's examples of this was the supposedly many words for , which has later been shown to be a misrepresentation but also for example how the describes water with two different words for drinking water in a container versus a natural body of water. These examples of served the double purpose of showing that indigenous languages sometimes made more fine grained semantic distinctions than European languages and that direct translation between two languages, even of seemingly basic concepts like snow or water, is not always possible.
More than any other linguist, has become associated with what he himself called "the principle of linguistic relativity". Instead of merely assuming that language influences the thought and behavior of its speakers (after and ) he looked at and attempted to account for the ways in which differences in grammatical systems and language use affected the way their speakers perceived the world. Whorf's detractors such as , and have criticized him for not being sufficiently clear in his formulation of how he meant languages influences thought, and for not providing actual proof of his assumptions. Most of his arguments were in the form of examples that were anecdotal or speculative in nature, and functioned as attempts to show how "exotic" grammatical traits were connected to what was apparently equally exotic worlds of thought. In Whorf's words:
Universalism "Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis The Paradox of Collecting Linguistic Evidence The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis The Universality Hypothesis Other Counter-Claims:
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If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were true, in that language determines one's view of the world, it would be exceedingly difficult to learn a second language because the amount of cognitive-dissonance involved would be extremely radical and crushing to one's ideological framework.
Boas' student reached back to the Humboldtian idea that languages contained the key to understanding the differing world views of peoples. In his writings he espoused the viewpoint that because of the staggering differences in the grammatical systems of languages no two languages were ever similar enough to allow for perfect translation between them. Sapir also thought because language represented reality differently, it followed that the speakers of different languages would perceive reality differently. According to Edward Sapir:
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, advances in and renewed interest in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. One of those who adopted a more Whorfian approach was . He argued that language is often used metaphorically and that different languages use different cultural metaphors that reveal something about how speakers of that language think. For example, English employs metaphors likening time with money, whereas other languages may not talk about time in that fashion. Other linguistic metaphors may be common to most languages because they are based on general human experience, for example, metaphors likening up with good and bad with down. Lakoff also argues that metaphor plays an important part in political debates where it matters whether one is arguing in favor of the "right to life" or against the "right to choose"; whether one is discussing "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers".
Pinker and other universalist opponents of the linguistic relativity hypothesis have been accused by relativists of misrepresenting Whorf's views and arguing against put up by themselves.
Where Brown's weak version of the linguistic relativity hypothesis proposes that language influences thought and the strong version that language determines thought, Fishman's ‘Whorfianism of the third kind’ proposes that language is a key to culture.
Today many followers of the universalist school of thought still oppose the idea of linguistic relativity. For example, argues in his book that thought is independent of language, that language is itself meaningless in any fundamental way to human thought, and that human beings do not even think in "natural" language, i.e. any language that we actually communicate in; rather, we think in a meta-language, preceding any natural language, called "mentalese." Pinker attacks what he calls "Whorf's radical position," declaring, "the more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make."
Other universalist researchers dedicated themselves to dispelling other notions of linguistic relativity, often attacking specific points and examples given by Whorf. For example, Ekkehart Malotki's monumental study of time expressions in Hopi presented many examples that challenged Whorf's interpretation of Hopi language and culture as being "timeless".
In his book Women, Fire and Dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind (1987), Lakoff reappraised the hypothesis of linguistic relativity and especially Whorf's views about how linguistic categorization reflect and/or influence mental categories. He concluded that the debate on linguistic relativity had been confused and resultingly fruitless. He identified four parameters on which researchers differed in their opinions about what constitutes linguistic relativity. One parameter is the degree and depth of linguistic relativity. Some scholars believe that a few examples of superficial differences in language and associated behavior are enough to demonstrate the existence of linguistic relativity, while other contend that only deep differences that permeate the linguistic and cultural system suffice as proof. A second parameter is whether conceptual systems are to be seen as absolute or whether they can be expanded or exchanged during the life time of a human being. A third parameter is whether translatability is accepted as a proof of similarity or difference between concept systems or whether it is rather the actual habitual use of linguistic expressions that is to be examined. A fourth parameter is whether to view the locus of linguistic relativity as being in the language or in the mind. Lakoff concluded that since many of Whorf's critics had criticized him using definitions of linguistic relativity that Whorf did not himself use, their criticisms were often ineffective.
An example of the influence of universalist theory in the 1960s is the studies by and who continued Lenneberg's research in color terminology. Berlin and Kay studied color terminology formation in languages and showed clear universal trends in color naming. For example, they found that even though languages have different color terminologies, they generally recognize certain hues as more focal than others. They showed that in languages with few color terms, it is predictable from the number of terms which hues are chosen as focal colors, for example, languages with only three color terms always have the focal colors black, white and red. The fact that what had been believed to be random differences between color naming in different languages could be shown to follow universal patterns was seen as a powerful argument against linguistic relativity. Berlin and Kay's research has since been criticized by relativists such as John A. Lucy, who has argued that Berlin and Kay's conclusions were skewed by their insistence that color terms should encode only color information. This, Lucy argues, made them blind to the instances in which color terms provided other information that might be considered examples of linguistic relativity. For more information regarding the universalism and relativism of color terms, see .
Lenneberg was also among the cognitive scientists to begin development of the Universalist theory of language which was finally formulated by in the form of , effectively arguing that all languages share the same underlying structure. The Chomskyan school also holds the belief that linguistic structures are largely innate and that what are perceived as differences between specific languages – the knowledge acquired by learning a language – are merely surface phenomena and do not affect cognitive processes that are universal to all human beings. This theory became the dominant paradigm in American linguistics from the 1960s through the 1980s and the notion of linguistic relativity fell out of favor and became even the object of ridicule.