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Ethnolinguistics is a field of linguistic anthropology which studies the relationship between language and culture, and the way different ethnic groups perceive the world. A well-known (but controversial) ethnolinguistic subject is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which states that perception is limited by what can be described in one's own language.

Ethnolinguists study the way perception and conceptualization influences language, and show how this is linked to different cultures and societies. An example is the way spatial orientation is expressed in various cultures (Bernd Heine 1997, Yi-Fu Tuan 1974). In many societies, words for the cardinal directions East and West are derived from terms for sunrise/sunset. The nomenclature for cardinal directions of Eskimo speakers of Greenland, however, is based on geographical landmarks such as the river system and one's position on the coast. Similarly, the Yurok lack the idea of cardinal directions; they orient themselves with respect to their principal geographic feature, the Klamath River.


  • Heine, Bernd (1997) Cognitive Foundations of Grammar. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Tuan, Yi-Fu (1974) Topophilia: A study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna (1992) Semantics, Culture, and Cognition: Universal human concepts in culture-specific configuration. New York: Oxford University Press.

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