Linguistic relativism

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Linguistic relativism refers to speculations about the influence of language upon thought, and especially about the varied influence of different languages upon thought. So-called "strong" forms of linguistic relativism are known as linguistic determinism: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (or "Whorfianism") is the best known example, in so far as it proposes that perception and cognition is determined or constrained by characteristics that vary between languages. A "weak" interpretation of Whorfianism supposes that linguistic differences may influence performance (in the Chomskyan sense), but do not limit competence. The term linguistic relativism is sometimes used specifically to refer to this weak form, as opposed to strong Whorfianism or linguistic determinism.

Linguistic relativism is often contrasted with theories of universal grammar (UG), notably as elaborated by Noam Chomsky. UG emphasizes the role of evolution in developing a universal "mental grammar" as a capacity of the human species, which is said to serve as a foundation for all natural languages. The concept of universal grammar does not preclude the notion that language has a role in the formation of thought, but suggests that the common biological basis for the human capacity of language provides a "deep structure" (or "logical form") that is a much stronger determinant than differences in the "surface structure" (or "phonetic form") between languages.

John A. Lucy has proposed a three-level analysis:

  1. Semiotic relativity of thought: "Whether having a code with a symbolic component (versus one confined to iconic-indexical elements) transforms thinking. This would distinguish the thinking of species that use such a code from that of species that do not.
  2. Structural relativity of thought: Whether "different morphosyntactic configurations of meaning affect thinking about reality." This is the level of analysis that is generally described as linguistic relativism, and distinguishes the thinking of speakers of different languages.
  3. Functional relativity of thought: "Whether using language in a particular way (e.g. schooled) may influence thinking … whether discursive practices influence thinking." This level distinguishes the thinking of speakers in different contexts of language use.


This timeline is a work in progress, but is intended to highlight influential thinkers who have made a case for the priority of language relative to thought, especially in so far as they call attention to the varying effects of different languages upon thought.

18th Century

Giambattista Vico is often credited with first raising the issue of linguistic relativism. In a 1709 lecture (De nostri temporis studiorum ratione, "On the method of study of our time"), he declared, "the ingenia ("wits") are formed by languages, rather than the languages by ingenia". Vico's epistemology ("verum esse ipsum factum") supposed that representations created by the mind are the only objects of knowledge, and that different languages furnish diverse vocabularies of representational metaphors.

Étienne Bonnot, abbé de Condillac, published Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines ("Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge") in 1746, a critique of John Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" of 1690. Condillac contested Locke's portrait of language as a medium for ideas and knowledge, asserting that ideas and knowledge are fundamentally composed from language.

In 1762, Johann Georg Hamann published a collection of essays, Kreuzzüge des Philologen ("Crusades of the philologist") in which he argued for a linguistic basis for thought: "Language did not originate from thought, but its origin had been prior to thought, for thought presupposes a language in which it might manifest itself."

Hamann's student, Johann Gottfried Herder, began to advance his own theories of linguistic relativism in 1764 with Uber den Fleiss in mehreren gelehrten Sprachen (On diligence in several learned languages), wherein he writes that the "particular national character" of languages imposes a "distinctive way of thinking", which he calls Denkungsart.

19th Century

Friedrich Schleiermacher's 1813 lecture, Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens ("On The Different Methods of Translating"), included the statement: "Every human being is, on the one hand, in the power of the language he speaks; he and all his thought are its products. He cannot think with complete certainty anything that lies outside its boundaries; the form of his ideas, the manner in which he combines them, and the limits of these combinations are all preordained by the language in which he was born and raised: both his intellect and his imagination are bound by it."

Wilhelm von Humboldt was a pioneering language scholar whose studies encompassed a broad selection of languages from different families around the world, notably including Basque, American, and Polynesian languages. He spent his last years studying the ancient Kawi language of Indonesia. In 1836, a year after his death, his theoretical views on language were published as "The Diversity of Human Language-Structure and its Influence on the intellectual and spiritual Development of Mankind" (Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaus und seinen Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts). For Humboldt, language was not merely an instrument for representing or communicating thought, but a "formative organ of thought" (bildende Organ des Gedankens): Different languages present "a diversity of world perspectives" (Verschiedenheit der Weltansichten).

Heymann Steinthal, a pupil of Humboldt, in the 1860s developed an interpretation of his mentor's notion of the "inner form" of a language. Intuition (Anschauung) underlying the forms of language arises unconsciously from a Volksgeist, a Hegelian notion that served as a precursor to the anthropological sense of "culture". Franz Boas, the founder of academic anthropology in the United States, was later to cite Steinthal as having demonstrated that "the form of thought is molded by the whole social environment of which language is part".

In 1875, William Dwight Whitney, who studied under Franz Bopp, published "The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science", in which he drew on Steinthal's treatment of Humboldt's notion of the "inner form" of a language to argue: "Every single language has thus its own peculiar framework of established distinctions, its shapes and forms of thought, into which, for the human being who learns that language as his mother-tongue, is cast the content and product of his mind."

20th Century

In 1916, Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale ("Course in General Linguistics") is posthumously published, based on lectures given between 1906 and 1911, and laying the foundation for structural linguistics. "In itself," wrote Saussure, "thought is like a swirling cloud where no shape is intrinsically determined. No ideas are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction of linguistic structure."