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.

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