The theory of linguistic relativity from the historical perspective

This post discusses how the theory of linguistic relativity evolved historically. In this connection the ideas of different scholars who have contributed to the evolution of the thought are reviewed.

The theory of linguistic relativity is best known from the works of Benjamin Lee Whorf and his mentor Edward Sapir (hence another name of the theory: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). Both Whorf and Sapir worked in the field of linguistics and anthropology. Most of their works were written and published in the first half of the 20th century. Some of their works were published later, posthumously, by their friends and colleagues. In order to understand better the contribution and the position of the scholars in connection with the theory of linguistic relativity, let us consider some of their best-known and, probably, most frequently cited quotes:
SapirImage credit: Biblioteca Digital Curt Nimuendajú, “Edward Sapir (1884-1939)” January 23, 20012, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

a) “[Language] powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the 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 […] . The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously on the language habits […] . The world in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached” (Sapir, 1964a, p.68-69).

This quote may appear to position Sapir as a proponent of linguistic determinism (the strong version of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), however, it is necessary to point out that the scholar was critical of the idea that there exists a direct correlation between the structure of a language and the way people think or that language constraints thought:

b) “It would be naïve to imagine that any analysis of experience is dependent on pattern expressed in language. Any concept, whether or not it forms part of the system of grammatical categories, can be conveyed in any language.” (Sapir, 1964b, p. 102).

As can be seen from the quote above, Sapir was cautious in tracing back the connection between language and thought although he was definitely seeing such a connection and, thus, he was a proponent of the weak version of the hypothesis.

Whorf was also critical of pure linguistic determinism, however, similar to Sapir, he saw that there exists a connection between language, thought, and culture. According to Whorf,

WhorfImage credit: Pl@nète Psy (Claude Goulet), “Whorf Benjamin Lee“.

c) “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 that the agreement decrees. 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” (Whorf, 1956, p. 213).

This quote points at the importance of language in helping to organize and to make meaningful the world around us, in ascribing importance to certain phenomena and deemphasizing others. However, this position does not provide us with an answer concerning the extent to which language influences thought.

To recapitulate, Sapir and Whorf were working on the development of the theory of linguistic relativity. Despite the fact that some scholars criticize Sapir and Whorf for linguistic determinism, both scholars, in fact, openly refuted linguistic determinism and were proponents of the weak version of the hypothesis.

There are two other scholars whom it is necessary to mention in connection with the historic development of the theory of linguistic relativity: Wilhelm von Humboldt and Franz Boas. These scholars laid the foundation for further development of the theory. According  to Von Humboldt,

d) “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world” (Von Humboldt, translated in Trabant, 2000, p. 25).

Generally speaking, Von Humboldt’s idea was to associate directly language with thought (i.e. thought = language). In other words, for Von Humboldt, language was the fabric of thought. Interestingly, the structure of language was understood by him as the reflection of people’s cultural identity and an indicator of how advanced a culture was. Following this logic, he assumed that developed cultures would have inflectional languages. Von Humboldt also believed that language may constraint the way we think and that it is possible to escape this “circle” only by jumping into another “circle”, that is, by learning a different language. In this sense, Von Humboldt’s perspective echoes linguistic determinism. Although this perspective is widely criticized by scholars, it was important in that it draw linguists’ attention to the interconnection between language, thought, and culture.

In 20th century, the idea that some languages are superior to others and determine, for example, economic progress of a society, was rather widespread. One of the first scholars to challenge this idea was Boas. He declared that

e) “It does not seem likely […] that there is any direct relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak, except in so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the state of the culture, but not in so far as a certain state of the culture is conditioned by the morphological traits of the language” (Boas, Boas, Powell & Holder, p. 63).

Thus, Boas, refuted the point of view according to which language structure was determining the way in which people think or the way cultures behave. On the contrary, language was seen by the scholar as merely an instrument which people use.

Building on this foundation and also reaching back to Von Humboldt, Boas’s student Sapir, formulated the idea according to which languages are not mere reflections of the real world or just instruments, but a sort of “sensors” that help to reflect and consequently view the world differently. Therefore, it is not altogether surprising that speakers of different languages would perceive the reality differently. This became the foundation of what we know today as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or the theory of linguistic relativity.

Similar posts:
1) Theory of linguistic relativity (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)
2) Strong and weak versions of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Boas, F., Boas, F., Powell, J., & Holder, P. (1966). Introduction to Handbook of American Indian languages. University of Nebraska Press.
Sapir, E. (1964a). “The status of linguistics as a science.” In D. G. Mandelbaum (Ed.), Edward Sapir (pp. 65-77). Berkeley: University of California Press.
— (1964b). American Indian grammatical categories,. Hymes, Dell [H]., Compiler. Language In Culture And Society, 101-111.
Trabant, J. (2000). In M. Verspoor, & M. Pütz (Eds.), Explorations in Linguistic Relativity (pp. 25-44). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Whorf, B. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. M.I.T. Press.



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