Linguistic determinism

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Linguistic determinism is the idea that language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought, as well as thought processes such as categorization, memory, and perception. The term implies that people of different languages have different thought processes.[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed the idea Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world", "The subject does not belong to the world, but it is a limit of the world", and "About what one cannot speak, one must remain silent". This viewpoint forms part of the field of analytic philosophy.

Linguistic relativity (popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis) is a form of linguistic determinism which argues that individuals experience the world based on the structure of the language they habitually use. For example, studies have shown that people find it easier to recognise and remember shades of colours for which they have a specific name.[2] Another example is the Daniel Everett study analyzing conception of numbers in the Brazilian Pirahã people. These individuals could not conceive numbers beyond ‘one’ and ‘two,’ for which there are actual terms in their language. After this all numbers are grouped under the term ‘many.’ Even after being taught in the Portuguese language for eight months, not one individual could count to ten.[3] This makes a strong case for the theory of linguistic determinism. Furthermore, many studies have documented the differences in identity formation in bilingual versus monolingual children, who have often reported a very different sense of self depending on language use. In one study with bilingual Latino students, it was determined that these children had “hybridized identities” visible in their linguistic brokering skills, and that “bilingualism, biculturalism, and biliteracy shaped and influenced the stance taken by the students toward their academic learning”.[4] These students used different languages for different tasks, switching back and forth and revealing differences in identity and conception of literacy.

Opponents to this theory maintain that thought exists prior to any conception of language, such as in the popular example of rainbows used in the Whorf hypothesis. One may perceive the different colors even while missing a particular word for each shade. Steven Pinker’s theory embodies this idea. He proposed that all individuals are first capable of a “universal mentalese,” of which all thought is composed prior to its linguistic form. Language then enables us to articulate these already existing thoughts into words and linguistic concepts.[5]

Role in literary theory

Linguistic determinism is a partial assumption behind a number of recent[when?] developments in rhetoric and literary theory. For example, French philosopher Jacques Derrida's dissected the terms of "paradigmatic" hierarchies (in language structures, some words exist only with antonyms, such as light/dark, and others exist only with relation to other terms, such as father/son and mother/daughter; Derrida targeted the latter). He believed that if one breaks apart the hidden hierarchies in language terms, one can open up a "lacuna" in understanding, an "aporia," and free the mind of the reader/critic. Similarly, Michel Foucault's New Historicism theory posits that there is a quasi-linguistic structure present in any age, a metaphor around which all things that can be understood are organized. This "epistem" determines the questions that people can ask and the answers they can receive. The epistem changes historically: as material conditions change, so the mental tropes change, and vice versa. When ages move into new epistems, the science, religion, and art of the past age look absurd. Some Neo-Marxist historians[who?] have similarly looked at culture as permanently encoded in a language that changes with the material conditions. As the environment changes, so too do the language constructs.

Experimental languages

The possibility of linguistic determinism has been explored by a variety of authors, mostly in science fiction. There exist some languages that have been constructed for the purpose of testing the assumption. However, no formal tests appear to have been done.

See also



  1. Hickmann, Maya (2000). "Linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism: some new directions". Linguistics. 38 (2): 410. doi:10.1515/ling.38.2.409.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. D'Andrade, Roy (1995). The development of cognitive anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521459761.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Bower, Bruce (2005). "The pirahá challenge: An amazonian tribe takes grammar to a strange place". Science News. 168 (24): 376–377. doi:10.2307/4017032. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Jiménez, Robert T. (2000). "Literacy and the Identity Development of Latina/o Students". American Educational Research Journal. 37 (4): 971–1000. doi:10.3102/00028312037004971. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Pinker, Steven (2007). The Language Instinct. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>