The History of Linguistic Relativity
The principle of Linguistic Relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) arguably describes the influence of language on the cognitive perception of reality (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 45). The history can be traced between the late 18th century and the 19th century German society. Notable scholars such as Georg Hamann and Wilhelm von Humboldt are associated with some early works on Linguistic Relativity (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 47). Linguistic Relativity is arguably a new concept that was not in existence during the period of Enlightenment. It was not until the Romantic era (through Hamann and Herder and later through Humboldt) that the concept of Linguistic Relativism sufficed (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 49).
During the Enlightenment period, the ideas of thought and dialect (language) were considered as two separate processes. To most proponents, human ideas and thoughts were purely conceived in the mind and that the composed ideas were independent of the language. Languages were solely viewed as a medium of communication and not the product of inner thought logics (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 53). During this period, language was largely considered as secondary to human thought patterns when formulation an idea.
Language, during the Enlightenment era was viewed as a creation of man, an argument that vehemently conflicted the teachings of the Catholic Church who argued that language was an invention of God (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 55). On the other hand, the Orthodox Church argued from the Genesis that was in line with the first property of Linguistic Relativity but still did not give an explicit explanation of the principle of linguistic relativism. Most scholars such as Leibnitz, therefore, aimed at improving language through a range of rational principles (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 59).
Hamann and Herder are considered to be some of the major proponents of the Romantic period in which the use of language in the expression of emotions was rampant (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 63). During the Romantic period, language was used by many poets to express emotions rather than on rationality. The concept of Linguistic Relativity as explained by Herder primarily questioned the universality of reasoning in the community of intellects (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 67). To most scholars during that existed during the Romantic period, language was seen as the primary source of thought. Herder was also very particular in his assertion of thought as an internalized form of language and arguably equated language and though processes (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 71).
However, some scholars dismissed Herder’s arguments claiming that they provided shallow comprehension of the concept of language coupled with unreliable information source (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 74). Humboldt on the other hand provided more evidence and comprehension of the conception of Linguistic Relativity. Humboldt also gave a relatively strong version of the theory of Linguistic Relativity but gave no explanation on why he considered language and thought to be of same significance and relation (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 75). He, however, backed most of his arguments with strong scientific evidences with an aim of validating the equality of thought and language and the varied influences on each other. In essence, Humboldt’s regard and argument on the concept of Linguistic Relativity entailed a relatively strong variant of the principle. This can be attributed to the fact that Humboldt considered language and thought as equals (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 78). To him, no thoughts existed without the influence of language and that the two processes complemented each well.
Sapir and Whorf are also other notable scholars whose ideas and writings on Linguistic Relativity influenced many thinkers. Sapir was an American anthropological linguist and a student of Franz Boas while Whorf was an amateur in linguist (Salzmann, Zdenek, James and Nobuko 85). The two Linguistic Relativity thinkers based their arguments on immediate experiences of the purported cultures and languages they often explained. For instance, Sapir, in his argument believed that humanity were in existence at the mercy of specific dialects that were considered to be the standard of expression in such communities (Alford and Danny 123).
Benjamin Lee Whorf, through his various writing collections gives an explicit explanation of the thought and language concept. To Lee Whorf, in case of a similarity in languages, the probability of dramatic cognitive differences becomes so little. In introducing a relatively new concept of the principle of Linguistic Relativity, Sapir and Whorf isolate some cognitive functions and develop a correlation between languages (Alford and Danny 128). The two scholars are considered to be the proponents of the new concept of Linguistic Relativism and bases most of their arguments from Humboldt (Alford and Danny 132).
The relationship between Linguistic Relativity and other academic fields
Linguistic and Sociology
Sociology studies human social interactions, the communities and the conduct of humanity in the society (Alford and Danny 133). In addition, sociology aims at studying the various societal norms, the role of symbols (such as smiles) and language in a social system. Linguistics can be described as an observational study of human dialect during the communication processes (Alford and Danny 136). The relationship that does exist between language and society cannot be underpinned. In most societies, language is used a medium of communication and is based on a number of spoken and unspoken segments (Alford and Danny 137). Most modern day linguistics primarily focuses on linguistic communication processes that range from the use of gestures, phones and other forms of communication. The primary objective is to depend on crucial information between the human races. Linguistic is also significant in determining the effect of language use on various aspects of humanity (Alford and Danny 139).
To most language psychologists, investigating the psychological reality of grammar remains a top priority (Alford and Danny 146). Most psychologists draw a lot from linguistics when administering certain therapies to patients. For instance, observing the speech pattern and certain non-verbal cues will be crucial in administering certain type of treatments to patients (Alford and Danny 149).
The history of the concept of linguistic relativism traverses across a number of significant methodological issues with higher levels of empirical analysis. From the explanations according to Hamann to the idea of Humboldt, the advent of empirical study of dialects is well documented. Notably, very few scholars give empirical evidences on the various influences of language on thought patterns. Correspondingly, most academic disciplines have a direct relation to the concept of linguistic relativism and in most instances complementing each other. Therefore, there is need for further study to determine and develop a causal relationship between thought and language.
Alford, Danny KH. “The demise of the Whorf hypothesis (A major revision in the history of linguistics).” Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society. Vol. 4. 2011.
Salzmann, Zdenek, James Stanlaw, and Nobuko Adachi. Language, culture, and society: An introduction to linguistic anthropology. Westview Press, 2014.