The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that our thoughts are shaped by our native language, and that speakers of different languages therefore think differently. This hypothesis is controversial in part because it appears to deny the possibility of a universal groundwork for human cognition, and in part because some findings taken to support it have not reliably replicated. We argue that considering this hypothesis through the lens of probabilistic inference has the potential to resolve both issues, at least with respect to certain prominent findings in the domain of color cognition. We explore a probabilistic model that is grounded in a presumed universal perceptual color space and in language-specific categories over that space. The model predicts that categories will most clearly affect color memory when perceptual information is uncertain. In line with earlier studies, we show that this model accounts for language-consistent biases in color reconstruction from memory in English speakers, modulated by uncertainty. We also show, to our knowledge for the first time, that such a model accounts for influential existing data on cross-language differences in color discrimination from memory, both within and across categories. We suggest that these ideas may help to clarify the debate over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Emily Cibelli
Yang Xu
Joseph Austerweil
Thomas Griffiths
Terry Regier
Publication date: 
July 19, 2016
Publication type: 
Recent Publication
Cibelli, Emily, Yang Xu, Joseph L. Austerweil, Thomas L. Griffiths, and Terry Regier. 2016. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and probabilistic inference: Evidence from the domain of color. PLOS ONE 11(7): e0158725.