Humboldt, Worldview and Language

Humboldt, Worldview and Language

Humboldt, Worldview and Language

Humboldt, Worldview and Language

Synopsis

Linguists including Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Noam Chomsky, philosophers such as Heidegger and sociologists such as Alan Bourdieu, have all supported the idea that language shapes the worldview of a linguistic community. This argument was first advanced by the Prussian philologist and politician Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767--1835), yet despite its wide-ranging recognition, Humboldt's thought- provoking theory on thought and language remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world. James W. Underhill's concise and rigorously researched study clarifies the main ideas and proposals of Humboldt's linguistic philosophy and explains how intellectuals and linguists can adopt and adapt his ideas to today's world. Geared toward students, Underhill provides a detailed glossary of terms to illustrate key concepts and aid in the translation of Humboldt's German-language terminology.

Excerpt

The global era might be seen as the era of language or the era of the threat to language, depending on what we mean by language. If we survey the astounding advances made in the field of communication with the advent of portable telephones, email, video conferences and IT, then we might be tempted to celebrate our era for brushing aside barriers to communication throughout the world. But if we consider language, not as communication, but as that specific system that evolves over time to give expression to a people’s culture, its way of life and even its way of thinking, then our era looks somewhat less rosy. Some experts estimate that of the 6,000 languages now spoken in the world, no more than half will survive the twenty-first century.

English seems assured a future. Is it conceivable for the average English-speaker, that the language which gave the world William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton and Adam Smith should simply cease to exist? This, nevertheless, is the fate facing thousands of languages whose communities are either dying out or switching over to languages which have greater clout in the world of international commerce, languages which are likely to provide their speakers with greater hope of economic survival. One language (the work of centuries of thought and feeling refined into expression) simply dies out every two weeks it has been estimated. A library of a culture is burned down often without ever having been written.

One of the great questions of the twenty-first century, not only for linguists and anthropologists, but for all those who feel . . .

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