Mumble on linguistic relativity


Linguistic relativity is the theory that language affects thought. This is generally against the idea that humans have a common manner of ratiocination which different languages simply express with different sounds.

In its strictest form (as in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), linguistic relativism is fascinating, almost certainly wrong, and quite possibly crazy. Strong linguistic relativism hypothesizes that speakers of different languages have radically different phenomenological experiences. Imagine a language that has no past tense – strong LR suggests that the speakers would then have a different relation to time itself (perhaps none?), that their experience of time would be without history in the way we imagine it. This sounds like a strawman, but it’s precisely what Whorf claimed about the Hopi. Cf certain vulgar readings of Wittgenstein.

In a weaker form, LR implies that certain ways of thinking will be different due to different languages. The weaker form is… confused. No one is sure how strongly, or in what way, language will impact thought. In other words, a very uncharitable interpretation would be that weak LR is only a vague retreat from LR, one which leaves the field open to anything until it can be proven wrong.

This assumes that weak LR theorists don’t have a proper theory of what changes. They want to say that languages impacts quite a lot, but when pressed retreat to “language is different in some way”. This creates the impression that they don’t actually know what language would change. But the emphasis here is wrong: the issue is that they have no theory as to what is common to human cognition, and hence it appears that they’re just grasping at whatever they can. This is often colors, because for some reason colors are the go-to example for hard problems in phenomenology. Either way, that’s an academic distinction but probably helpful to mention for what follows. If we figure out what is common, then we can imagine what is open to variance.

Accept every proposition here and here. Then:


If poetry is a value creator, and values change the phenomenological experience of people, then we have a strange kind of mechanism for linguistic relativism. Not all poems can be translated perfectly. The information can be conveyed, but the aesthetic aspect is lost in the process (or, indeed, the reverse). Note that the information is the unimportant part, based on our previous assumptions.

I explicitly assume that information (propositions) can be translated. In this model, “information” is what is common to human cognition. This neatly encompasses the fact that mathematics and logical rigor do appear common. Indeed, the idea that mathematics is relative is such an extraordinary claim that some very powerful proof would have to be mustered to defend it. Yes, I know about Daniel Everett, one language that we have one person’s account of is not powerful enough.

The same goes for logic, which also quite nicely explains how all cultures appear near- perfectly adapted to their environment. Take three hypotheses: a) this is a complete and total accident, b) people may have acted irrationally beforehand, but eventually saw what worked and continued it, c)  adaptive cultural traits were consciously developed (i.e. through reason), both (b) and (c) require some recognizable form of “logic” to be common to all languages. Without declaring either (b) or (c) to be dominant (it has to be a mix of both, right?), (a) seems completely absurd to me. For (b) works through environmental selection (actions and traits that do not work well are eliminated, i.e. people die by doing a stupid), yet it would also require that these environmental effects are either (1), too weak to be of influence, or (2) we just happened to run into a bunch of cultures right before they were selected against. (1) is dumb. (2) is also dumb, both for the historical record and for the fact that it relies on perfect coincidence over and over and over.

Of course, most of those adaptations are through logical or technological habits, i.e. farming techniques, weaponry, etc. But we do see radically different cultural values outside of those. Some of these may be adaptive, but the pragmatic “use” of them does not perfectly explain their overall form. Indeed: we see values differ radically from culture to culture even when their environments are roughly the same (say, Rome prudishness vs. Samnite nudity, or whatever is happening among the Baining vs. everyone else around them) to explain this more evolutionary effect.

And yet, based on the fringe model, certain words in different languages will lend themselves more readily to “fringe” effects than others, whether this is through puns or poetic meter or [other such things]. This will change the values of the culture, as already discussed. Note that it’s unimportant whether values can be expressed in a certain way, or simply already have been, for by proposition the latter will result in a self-perpetuating fringe. Indeed, the first has to be possible in some vague way for there to be cultural sharing and transmission (which, well, there is). That being said, it is interesting that when one culture is converted to the religion of another, they often adopt the ecclesiastical words of the latter (see: Latin).


In favor of polyglottism, against monolingualism, against translation.

Author: Lou Keep

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