What We Do with Language-What It Does with Us

By Kodish, Bruce I. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

What We Do with Language-What It Does with Us


Kodish, Bruce I., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


APARTICULAR VIEW of language relates to the applied, evaluational approach of general semantics. Language is intertwined with behavior, consciousness, etc. It has a neurological base; that is, language doesn't exist entirely separately from nervous systems-persons using the words. By means of spiral feedback mechanisms, we create our language; our language affects us; we create our language; etc., ongoingly. This individual process is embedded in, influences and is influenced by, a particular culture and community of others.

This view, "linguistic relativity," has a history in western culture going back at least several hundred years to the work of Vico and von Humboldt and more recently to linguistic anthropologists Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf, among others.

For those who espouse linguistic relativity, what we call 'language' and 'culture,' 'consciousness' and 'behavior' develop and operate together through individual and group experience. (Since they do not function in complete isolation from each other, although they can be considered separately, I put the terms in single quotes here.) Linguistic anthropologist Michael Agar has coined the term "languaculture" to label the joint phenomenon of language-culture. How do these factors work together?

Without denying cross-cultural similarities among humans, the principle of linguistic relativity implies that, as Whorf scholar Penny Lee wrote:

  ... although all observers may be confronted by the same physical
  evidence in the form of experiential data and although they may be
  capable of "externally similar acts of observation" ... a person's
  'picture of the universe' or 'view of the world' differs as a function
  of the particular language or languages that person knows. (1)

Korzybski and Keyser independently and earlier formulated similar notions in relation to undefined terms, logical fate, etc. As you may recall, they contended that the culturally inherited structure of an individual's language, including his or her terminology, grammar, logic, doctrines, etc., relates to assumptions, premises, implications about the structure of ourselves and the world.

In Science and Sanity, Korzybski hinted at the practical implications of this structure even within a particular, apparently 'unified' languaculture:

  We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual
  language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us
  through the mechanism of s.r. [semantic or evaluational reactions] and
  that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us
  unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us.
  (2)

Various distorted versions of this view have come to be known as the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis," an academic abstraction which does not label anything that Sapir or Whorf ever put forward as a hypothesis on their own. (The principle of linguistic relativity which they did put forward can be interpreted in various ways and may lead to many different hypotheses.) Some scholars have pursued their own distorted interpretations and made a strawman rendering of Whorf's views.

As you might imagine, much controversy has been generated by the various versions and responses to them. I consider this controversy important to examine in some detail in Dare to Inquire, due to the centrality of linguistic relativity in general semantics. I discuss the general-semantics view in the course of going into various other versions.

Language and Thought

According to psychologist Steven Pinker, both Whorf and Korzybski presented linguistic relativity as a single-valued, absolutistic and uni-directional belief that "language determines thought." (3) This "strong version" (and 'weaker' ones as well) of the supposed Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is "wrong, all wrong" (4) claims Pinker (widely accepted as an expert in linguistics and psychology). …

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