Linguistic Relativism

Colin Harrison colinh at OWLNET.RICE.EDU
Thu Nov 2 19:37:37 UTC 1995

Hey Funknetters!

At the risk of unleashing a torrent of violent invective, I want to say a
few things about linguistic relativism...  I am genuinely interested in
receiving constructive comment on the following assertions.

If different linguistic systems pay attention to different
categories/principles, then speakers of those languages will have more
established neural linkages amongst whatever conceptual (etc.) elements are
necessary for the categories in question.  Those stronger linkages amount
to greater conceptual salience (greater ease of activation) and will hence
exert greater influence on related conceptualizations...  This is a kind of
mild linguistic relativism.

People who have a bad reaction to such ideas seem to me to be falling into
a simple logical fallacy, i.e. that the absence of a category from
linguistic structure equals its necessary absence from the conceptual
system of speakers of that language.  This is ridiculous.  The absence,
either complete or relative, of an observable structure in a language
system does not entail that the speakers of that language are *incapable*
of conceptualising such a category.  Many Asian languages do not mark
tense, and yet wristwatches still sell quite well in such countries; trains
run on time at least as much as they do here, etc...

The presence or absence of a structure does however give us hints about
what kinds of categories might be *important* in the world view of the
speakers.  It's a question of relative importance.  It is not a question of
variant conceptual ability (and hence by extension, intelligence - the
notion upon which the common knee-jerk resistance seems to be based).

So why bother even talking about it?  Because it's interesting!  The fact
that broad socio-cultural characteristcs may find reflection in linguistic
structure is one that should not be rejected a priori on spuriously
motivated concerns over political correctness.  If the evidence provided by
linguistic structure can be correlated with other social and perhaps
psychological observations, then we might be able not only to say something
about variant cultures for the noble cause of posterity, but perhaps also
about some of the root causes of cross-cultural misunderstanding, and
perhaps go on to make some intelligent suggestions for the facilitation of
cross-cultural communication.

Another common misconception which seems to emerge in arguments about
relativity is the presumed mono-directionality of influence from language
to thought, or vice-versa.  All humans have access to essentially the same
range of conceptual potential.  How that potential is developed in the
individual is a result of the unique life experience of that individual.
The language system(s) that an individual grows up with will obviously have
a notable influence on that process, whereby repeated employment of
categories common in the system will reinforce certain conceptual
associations, while others will remain less reinforced.  But by the same
token, the individual is not constrained by the linguistic system such that
they become unable to say things for which the language lacks forms
(remeniscent of Orwell's notion of political control via 'Newspeke').  A
language is a system within which creativity is certainly possible to some
degree.  And there are many aspects of conceptualisation which are not
directly dependant upon language-related systems.  So "which influences
which" is similarly a narrowly conceived question.  Language and thought
are intimately related; aspects, in fact, of the same phenomenon.  There is
no chicken and egg paradox, unless the two are reified as separable
objects.  They are not separable objects, they are facets of single
phenomenon, and when regarding a single phenomenon, the question "which
came first" doesn't really make much sense...

Whaddya think?

Colin J.Harrison
Linguistics Department
Rice University
6100 South Main                   ph. +1 (713) 630 9312
HOUSTON  TX  77005                e-mail: colinh at

Have a nice day!

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