Language Relativism
The Aristotelian tradition
• Aristotle questioned the existence of absolute
concepts and argued that, whether concrete
or abstract, concepts can only be deduced
from our experience of them, i.e. there is no
absolute quality of 'whiteness', only white
houses, flowers or whatever. Knowledge,
therefore, must be based on what is observed.
St Augustine
• Seemed to maintain the Platonic idea that
one is aware of the nature of the thing named
(res) before one knows its name (nomen or
• But also suggested that we learn language
empirically, or from our experience of
watching others use it, is more in the
Aristotelian tradition.
Other philosophers
• Descartes- our understanding of reality must be
based on empirical observation,
• Locke- the human being as a tabula rasa,
believed that the names of things were acquired
• Empiricism in the late 18th and 19th centuries
also turned the focus of language study away
from anything metaphysical, and towards an
interest in language as an expression of cultures
and societies through history.
Humboldt (1836)
• Key figure in the history of language relativism
• In fact believed in an essential universal language
underlying all known, or at least all IndoEuropean, languages.
• Theory - individual languages usually did not
measure up to this ideal norm, although Sanskrit
probably came as near as it was possible.
• Interested in the formation rather than the
origins of language
Humboldt (1836)
• Convinced that there was a strong connection
between language and national character and
• Claimed thought was conditioned by the
language one spoke.
• Certain languages were better equipped for
thought than others.
Racism and language relativism
• Are some languages better equipped than
others for thought? Philosophy? Science?
• Are some languages more suitable for
expressing feelings? Music? Love?
• Why do we have these ideas / prejudices?
Sapir (1921)
American Anthropologist
• Pointed out that difference in culture or mentality
is merely that - difference - and does not imply a
qualitative judgement on the language or the
people who speak it.
• " We know of no people that is not possessed of
a fully developed language.... The lowliest South
African bushman speaks in the forms of a rich
symbolic system that is in essence perfectly
comparable to the speech of the cultivated
Whorf (1956)
• Goes even further to avoid accusations of racism (in
favour of European supremacy)
• "the eminence of our European tongues and thinking
habits proceeds from nothing more [than prestige
based on human economics and history]
• Many preliterate ("primitive") communities, far from
being subrational, may show the human mind
functioning on a higher and more complex plane of
rationality than among civilized men"
• "We do not know that civilization is synonymous with
Boas (1917 and 1920),
• Study of American Indian languages
• Importance of studying these languages if the
cultures of these people were to be understood
• Warns against influence from colonizing
languages, as well as the effect of the languages
on each other for historical and social reasons
• Anthropology - interesting work on religious,
political and kinship structures
• Bernstein (1971-4)
• Halliday (1979)
• Language can help or hinder:
– Educational development
– Integration in the society we live in
Lado (1974)
Trudgill (1974)
Miller (1983)
Tannen (1994)
Show how far attitudes towards things like
race, class and sexual discrimination are
reflected in language we use, often quite
Political correctness
• Never use ‘he’ to mean ‘he’ + ‘she’
• Avoid gender stereotypes – e.g. presuming
doctors, politicians, lawyers etc are male, and
secretaries, cleaning personnel and nurses are
• Avoid derogatory expressions for people
based on race, class, religion, sex, sexual
orientation etc – think of some in your
Philosophy and language in the 20th c.
Logical Positivists – Vienna Circle
Ordinary Language Philosophers
Early Wittgenstein
Late Wittgenstein
Saussure and Wittgenstein chose the
metaphor of a game of chess to describe
Austin (1963)
• Theory of 'speech-acts
• 'sayings- 'constatives' (e.g. statements, or descriptions),
• 'doings' or 'performatives' (e.g. promises or
• Later (1970 and 1971) –
– 'illocutionary acts', which covered statements,
descriptions, promises and warnings, etc., as somehow
establishing the speaker's attitude
– 'perlocutionary acts', like persuading, convincing,
frightening, boring, amusing, or annoying, which aim at
affecting the hearer, usually, as the terms suggest, by
producing some form of emotion.
Gardner (1987: 71)
• “We no longer dream of deducing science
from sense data: the scientist (whether
philosopher or psychologist) now conducts
research in which experimental subjects
become the preferred route to discovering
how any individual makes sense of his
Philosophical argument
• Most extreme form of language relativism
• Only the individual can ever hope to fully
understand what he/she actually means
• And even then…….!
• See Wikipedia
• Compare moral relativism, aesthetic
relativism, social constructionism, cultural
relativism, and cognitive relativism.
Terminology of language relativism
• Comparative philology – study of historical
development and mutual influences between
• Contrastive linguistics – comparison of
languages lexicons and structures for the
effect of teaching languages and translating
• Comparative linguistics – comparison
languages in order > language universals
Interesting people
• George Lakoff
• Steven Pinker
• Debora Tannen
Interesting webpages
• M.A.K Halliday – Wikipedia
• Systemic Functional Linguistics

Language Relativity