Language as a Change Tool

Section: Change Management
Topic: Company Transformation
Author(s): Ludmila Matiash
Posted: January 21, 2003
Hits: 15463

"He gave man speech, and speech created thought —
which is the measure of the universe"

Shelley — Prometheus Unbound

The relationship between language, thought, and perception has been debated by academics, cognitive scientists and even educators. One provocative question asks, "Does language shape thinking and the world view?" If so, are some groups "limited" by the language they use in recognizing concepts? Alternatively, is language a tool for expanding understanding of phenomenon? A discussion of linguistic determinism and relativity may suggest some alternatives for managers and groups in choosing effective strategies for dealing with new ideas and paradigms.

Do You Know What I Mean?

Some consultants say that managers in transitional economies don't understand certain principles needed for developing effective change strategies. More exactly, these managers have not grasped certain fundamentals, or assumptions, about phenomenon. This prevents them from correctly using tools and instruments which can guide their organizations through change. Consequently, this lack of awareness stunts growth and has other negative effects on organizational transformation.

Without a doubt, most professionals today (not only managers in transitional economies) work in environments in which trends of the past no longer predict the future. By default people apply the mental paradigms they already have, using their old mental models for working with dramatically new phenomenon. They too are probably confused about principles, visions, tools . and how to play the new game with new rules that nobody understands.

But, asking what is cause and what is effect may be like putting the cart before the horse. Has anyone convincingly answered the question, Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Maybe it would help to look at the question of understanding from the perspective of cognition and linguistic determinism.

Reality or Relativity?

The concepts of determinism and relativity are discussed in many areas of science. For example, technological determinism discusses how technology influences lives. Specifically, the use of new media is argued as causing fundamental changes in society and the human psyche (McLuhan). At the same time, new media provides new opportunities to adapt and evolve. We see this happening in the Knowledge Economy.

Similarly, the nature/nurture debate in psychology argues the effects of the environment and of genetics on life (Chandler). Philosophers debate free will and determinism as mutually exclusive conditions. The psychotherapist and philosopher Victor Frankl, for example, rejected the concept of determinism in his writings when he wrote, the last of the human freedoms is to choose one's attitude in any set of circumstances. Does this suggest that we are condemned to be free?

Cause or Effect?

So, why do some groups struggle to recognize certain phenomenon and concepts? Is it some historical legacy of the group? The institutional memory of the organization? The educational system? The corporate culture? Some academics and scientists have suggested that one reason may be the relationship between language and thought.

Linguists and cognitive scientists have been debating for over half a century the relationship between language, thought and perception. The most debated form of the argument has come to be popularly (and incorrectly!) called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Although not really a hypothesis, the argument consists of two versions which were invented by academics as a result of research by American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. These versions are sometimes referred to as the strong version, Linguistic Determinism, and the weak version, Linguistic Relativity:

    1) Linguistic Determinism (language controls human perceptions and thought)
    2) Linguistic Relativity (language structures perceptions and world view in significant ways).

According to the strong version, linguistic determinism, our perceptions and thoughts are determined by the language we use. According to the weak version, linguistic relativity, people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world differently.

Writing in 1929, Edward Sapir offered:

    Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation (Sapir 1958 [1929], p. 69).

This position was extended in the 1930s by Sapir's student Benjamin Lee Whorf who declared:

    We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees (Whorf 1940, pp. 213-14; his emphasis).

Over time, the writings of Sapir and Whorf have been greatly misinterpreted and their conclusions exaggerated. Some historical reasons for this confusion are described by linguist Danny Alford in Phoenix: New Directions in the Study of Man. Without a doubt, language, thinking, culture, behavior, psychology, and consciousness are provocative subjects. As a result, many interpretations of the relationship between different groups of language users have been proposed (language group is defined as a group of people that speak the same natural language):

  • If a group of people uses language A, and another group of people uses language B, then the thoughts of A speakers will be different from the thoughts of language B speakers. (a popular version)
  • "Knowledge is not a function of the known but, rather, the knower or, better still, the semantic categories which the knower brings to the known." (Wasserman, p. 207)
  • "Our linguistic boundaries may become the boundaries of our actions, shaping rather than reflecting our actions." (Wasserman, p. 220)
  • "People's thoughts are determined by the categories made available to them by their language." (strong version — Pinker, p. 57)
  • "Differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers." (weak version — Pinker, p. 57)
  • "Foundational categories of reality are not 'in' the world but imposed by one's culture." (Pinker, p. 57)
  • "Thought is the same thing as language." (extreme version — Pinker, p. 57)
  • "Words have some effect on memory or categorization." (very weak version — Pinker, p. 65)
  • "Once they have become users of language the thoughts and minds of children are shaped in an irrevocably transformed and different way and become socialized mind." (Ernest, p. 212)
  • "The world of space and time is in fact a continuum, without firm and irrevocable boundaries or divisions, which each languages divides up and encodes in accordance with its own particular structure." (Hawkes, pp. 31-32)
  • "Language determines thought." (strong version — Gross, p. 362)
  • "Language affects perception and memory." (weak version — Gross, p. 362)

The Principle of Linguistic Relativity

Most linguists today have completely rejected the deterministic view, that language determines thinking and perception, the way we see and understand the world. Whorf himself named and stated only one principle, the Linguistic Relativity Principle. In his writings Whorf always defined language as a cultural phenomenon — two sides of the same coin (Alford). However, neither Whorf nor Sapir ever suggested that there was a causal relationship between culture and language.

    We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated (Carroll, p. 214).

    From this fact proceeds what I have called the linguistic relativity principle which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world (Carroll, p. 221).

Unfortunately, Whorf's Principle was turned into a hypothesis and argued against by critics. Alford suggests that Whorf was misunderstood because he argued from a non-traditional viewpoint with reference to Einsteinian relativity, quantum theories, Jungian psychoanalysis, and Gestalt psychology. His approach was holistic rather than in the style of academics and linguistscausal, linear and reductionist. Whorf was describing a paradox.

Still, most linguists today will agree that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced by the kind of language we use. This position is sometimes referred to as Moderate Whorfianism.

  • thinking is influenced by language, but not determined by it;
  • influence is a two-way process. The kind of language we use is also influenced by the way we see the world;
  • this influence is not at the Language level (we can not compare different world languages). The influence occurs within the same language. An example is when a speaker chooses a particular form of speech in a sociolect — the language used primarily by members of a particular social group, or in very specific languages such as scientific language, academic language, etc.;
  • emphasis is on the social context of how language is used, not on linguistic forms. For example, there is social pressure in some contexts to use language in one way rather than another (Chandler).

Systems Thinking or Systemic Thinking?

In other words, most linguistics and cognitive scientists today reject mono-causal determinism in favor of a systems thinking approach — where everything is interdependent, multi-causal, and interconnected. Language shapes culture while culture is shaping language; language shapes thinking while thinking is shaping language.

But even this position has been misapplied to argue qualitative differences between languages and cultures .. sadly, with political implications. Debaters forget that the focus is not on languages or national cultures themselves, nor on their differences and similarities. We can not compare apples and oranges. We can only compare linguistic constructs and social conventions within the same language — the social context where language is used. These invisible rules of speech govern what can be said and how . a kind of linguistic culture of the group. These rules of speech also govern what we can not say. Do they also govern what we can and can not think?

A prominent linguist once made the following observation about the English sentence Before we talked about problems we didn't think about them. Her comment was,

    Unquestionably, the likelihood that attention will be paid to a phenomenon in a culture is strongly affected by the ease and convenience with which something can be talked about in the language or languages spoken there. One of the most efficient ways to keep a problem out of people's awareness is to keep the vocabulary for discussing it as small and awkward as possible (Elgin).

This Whorfian position certainly supports a relationship (although not causal) between language and thought. Some leaders have extended this position to develop national language and education policies using the following logic:

    Policy Maker: We don't want our citizens to think about religion. So, we won't include the word God in our dictionaries and textbooks.

Effective corporate leaders certainly believe in the causal relationship between language and behavior. They systematically articulate their collective Visions,

    CEO: Our Vision is to become #1 in our industry.

On the other hand, in many workplaces you can still hear,

    Defiant Teenager: "That's not my job, I'm not going to worry about cleaning the hall,"


    Unmotivated Factory Employee: It's not my fault that the part doesn't fit the design. I was just following orders.

And even in high-level corporate offices,

    Powerless Project Manager: I don't make the decisions here, the Director does that.

These last 3 examples, within the sociolects of particular cultures, (family cultures, organizational cultures, corporate cultures, etc.), are grammatically correct and completely appropriate comments within their socio-linguistic contexts. It may not be the right thing to do, but it is the right thing to say. The linguistic patterns are familiar and historically acceptable. These are frozen lexical items, language traps which support existing mental models and lead to hardening of the brain's arteries!

According to Chandler, in every subculture, the dominant conventions regarding appropriate usage tend to exert a conservative influence on the framing of phenomena — on the paradigm. From the media theory perspective, the sociolects of sub-cultures and the idiolects of individuals represent a subtly selective view of the world: tending to support certain kinds of observations and interpretations and to restrict others. This transformative power of language is usually unnoticed and we aren't even aware of it most of the time (Chandler).

Silent Killers

Do language habits help us to escape from responsibility? Are some patterns a heritage from the cultural past? Why do we often fall back on the old and familiar linguistic habits?

When there is theoretical and methodological confusion (in areas such as management, for example) it's hard to keep an open mind. Thomas Kuhn identified this confusion in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions as the period in history which precedes paradigm shifts. In times of crisis, chaos, and revolutionary change, there is temptation to return to known patterns of behavior, to return to comfortable solutions. It seems that during these times people look for cause and effect relationships to explain all sorts of new phenomenon.

But linear thinking doesn't work well if we're dealing with a paradox (Alford). At the same time, a non-linear systems thinking approach challenges our favorite mental models and makes us uncomfortable. The new vocabulary may be too new. The best practices may be too risky, too revolutionary for some. We don't know what the reaction will be. What will others think if we say that? What if we are misunderstood? Recycling old patterns saves us from risk from having to choose from having to think from having to change!

Silent Killers were identified by Michael Beer (Harvard Business School) and Russell Eisenstat (Center for Organizational Fitness) as hiding in the false assumptions of management teams. Although known to everyone in the organization, they are not openly discussed or dealt with. They undermine large-scale transformation efforts. The as-is organizational dynamics, for example, prevents new decision-making processes and change initiatives from being implemented .. even Balanced Scorecard initiatives (Beer).

One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Do some groups have trouble with concepts, principles, and assumptions because they don't have the vocabulary to talk about them? Possibly. Can people recognize new phenomenon without linguistic help? Most linguists will say yes, of course, but it's not easy. Tools help. Is language a good stretch tool for expanding understanding? Here, linguists and even accountants would agree!

The Balanced Scorecard, for example, is in a sense a language tool and a systematic feedback system. According to Robert Kaplan, Companies can develop an initial Balanced Scorecard with fairly narrow objectives: to gain clarification, consensus, focus on their strategy and then to communicate that strategy throughout the organization . The Balanced Scorecard provides a framework to describe and communicate strategy in a consistent and insightful way. We can't expect to implement strategy if we can't describe it.

    Words are not sufficient to communicate the change initiative. The same words mean different things to different people. It is only when word statements are translated into measures that everyone understands clearly what the vision and the strategy are about (Kaplan).

Power Tools

To measure a phenomenon, you need the right tool.
To see the phenomenon, you need to give it a name.

When the phenomena change significantly, you have to change the tool you're using. And you have to call the phenomenon something. Appropriately, academics and consultants develop new vocabulary, new definitions, new categories of meaning, new paradigms, new criteria, new measurements, and systematically articulate these.

These meanings circulate, are defined, re-defined, refined, until they become recognized, familiar, comfortable. They are the result of successful negotiations and consensus by many people over a long period of time. These meanings are the products of a conspiracy among a group of people with something in common, with a shared interest . stakeholders who have argued and disagreed and finally agreed to agree about something. And when work becomes meaning-driven then it's time to talk about Values.


  1. Alford, Danny K. H. Part I: Demise of the Whorf Hypothesis, in Phoenix: New Directions in the Study of Man (vol 4, Nos. 1 and 2). Phoenix Associates, Palo Alto, CA: 1980. Also at
  2. Beer, Michael and Russell Eisenstat. Organizational Fitness: The Context for Successful Balanced Scorecard Programs, excerpt B9909B from Balanced Scorecard Report, vol. 1 No. 1,
  3. Beer, Michael and Russell Eisenstat. The Silent Killers: Overcoming the Hidden Barriers to Organizational Fitness, working paper 98-064, Harvard Business School, Boston, Mass, 1998.
  4. Carroll, John (ed.) Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. M.I.T. Press: Cambridge, 1956.
  5. Chandler, Daniel. The Act of Writing, at
  6. Elgin, Suzette Haden. The Linguist List, at
  7. Ernst, P. Social Constructivism as a Philosophy of Mathematics. SUNY, New York, 1998.
  8. Gross, R.D. Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior. Hodder & Staughton, London, 1992.
  9. Hawkes, T. Structuralism and Semiotics. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977.
  10. Kaplan, Robert S. and David P. Norton. The Strategy-Focused Organization: How Balanced Scorecard Companies Thrive in the New Business Environment. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001.
  11. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
  12. Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. Penguin (Allen Lane), London, 1994. Also see Professor Pinker's personal website at MIT (link through and this unofficial website at for discussion about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, especially The LINGUIST List, and On Sapir-Whorf and Linguistic Relativity.
  13. Sapir, Edward. 'The Status of Linguistics as a Science,' 1929. In E. Sapir: Culture, Language and Personality (ed. D. G. Mandelbaum). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1958.
  14. Wasserman, J.N. Both Fixed and Free: Language and Destiny in Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, in Wasserman, J.N. & Roney, L, eds., 1989.
  15. Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 'Science and Linguistics', Technology Review 42(6): 229-31, 247-8, 1940. Also in B. L. Whorf. Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (ed. J. B. Carroll). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956.

comments powered by HyperComments


It is an example of excellent executed exercise on the English language.
But how it concerns to transformation of the company Unless to force employees to speak in different languages and to go in the steps the Babylon builders?
21 13:58:46.01.2003

, ! , , , , . , , , "" .
, , , in native English .
, - - "language shapes thinking".
22 22:52:41.01.2003


, , ...

, , ?
23 17:43:16.01.2003

Serhiy, honestly, I did not catch the idea of your question. English is my second working language, as far as I understood - Ludmila (as American born) has good knowledge of Ukrainian, you are working with both as well (at least), so...
It's nice to have good contribution in any working language of this site - Ukrainian, Russian, English.
The problem is to shape our professional language in Ukraine, useful today and in future. And this article helps to raise the right issues.
25 13:41:45.01.2003

Gurmeet Singh Mehta,
Great article. I was searching for something like this, because I also beliave that language is a decisive tool for change management. Your thoughts have strenghtened mine.

06 00:28:11.02.2005

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