Re. lingusitic relativism

Day, D. dennis at LING.GU.SE
Fri Nov 3 14:40:16 UTC 1995

In response to Colin J.Harrison, my comments are marked off with an ">" (lousy mailer).

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.

> one problem here as I see it is that lingusitic systems don't pay attention to anything,
>people do. If you mean that people pay attention to categories then you're overstating.
>People pay attention to things which interest them or somehow force themselves upon
>them, lingusitic and other categories are one type of thing. That they may then find cause
>to express these multifarious things in some language is another matter.

Those stronger linkages amountto 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.

> I agree, these people must 1) always know ahead of time what it is they're going to say
>and 2) know exactly how to express it.

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.

> how can we say that socio-cultural characteristics are reflected in something, e.g.
>language, which can not be observed outside of some socio-cultural context. Further,
>most so-called socio-cultural characteristics are in fact glosses for lingusitic practices.

 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.

> I take exception to the unique individual. I believe other people, and particularly the
>things they do together, have a lot to do with our concepts. Also note that the most basic
>thing we "do together" is talk to each other.

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

> Again this is a stange sense of agency attributed to such an abstraction as a linguistic

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...

> what single "phenomena" do you have in mind?

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!

// Dennis Day                   dennis at
// Dept. of Linguistics         tel/fax +47 (0) 31 969631
// Univ. of Goteborg
// 412 98 Goteborg
// Sweden

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