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Linguistic Relativity

The concept of linguistic relativity has its origin in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – a concept appearing a little before the second world war.  While Edward Sapir was a noted linguist and anthropologist, Benjamin Whorf was a chemical engineer, who melded Sapir’s linguistic expertise along with the early studies of quantum physics to come up with the idea that our language strongly influences how we view the world . . . which affects how we do research.  Whorf was definitely not the sort of scholar who publishes in today’s professional journals.

At the extreme, our reality is constructed by the language we speak, and different languages result in different realities.  The structure and lexicon of your language influences how you observe and conceptualize the world, and does that in a systematic way. 

Sapir wrote (1929): “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as normally understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language that has become the medium of expression for their society.  It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection.  Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns  called words that we might understand.  .  .  We see and otherwise experience very largely because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”

Whorf reversed the western view of language.  Instead of language following the rules of logic, he showed that western logic conforms to the necessities of western grammar.  According to Whorf, the Hopi language, with its three tenses of present-past, future and generalized, is better equipped to describe modern (quantum) physics, while English imposes the two Newtonian universal forms of static universal three dimensional space and perpetually flowing single-dimensional time.  (Makes it hard to describe the Big Bang in English)

Fortunately, Alibris exists – and MIT published Language, Thought and Reality: the collected writings of Benjamin Whorf back in 1964.  It’s worth reading.

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