Identity's role in the debate on Linguistic Relativity

Writing by Eilish Newmark.

In May, the Cambridge Union YouTube page live-streamed an interview with Noam Chomsky where he was asked about how his political activism and libertarian socialist philosophies may be influenced by his work in linguistic theory, or vice versa. Chomsky is often quoted to be the ‘father of modern linguistics’ because of his landmark proposal of a Universal Grammar, in which lies the claim that all humans have a genetic endowment for a faculty of language, no matter our social or cultural differences. His view of language critiques the idea that language and thought are learned as a product of interaction with other humans and our environment.

Chomsky’s answer to the question of how his political and linguistic work interlinks revolved around the idea that language and thought may share some key abstract elements. His response to the question was that ‘the core of human nature is an instinct for freedom and creativity’, something that he says is evident in modern authentic libertarian thought, and also in the productive and innovative capacity of language. He stated that while we can’t draw deductive conclusions, the creative instinct of language runs parallel with that of political activism, which works to ‘preserve and enhance […] human dignity, freedom and creativity’ by placing a ‘burden of proof’ on any form of authority. This answer nods towards a linguistic debate of relativity that has identity at the centre of it.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, largely criticised by Chomsky, claims that language and thought have a mutual influence on each other. To have a particular word and grammatical structure in the language that you speak could influence or determine the way that you think. Whilst Chomsky can see abstract parallels between the instincts of both political activism and language to be creative, libertarian and revolutionary, he is against the claim that one determines or influences the other. The fact that we are able to say whatever we want is a fact of our productive grammar and does not make us freer and more liberal people.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems to be apparent in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s theory of metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors we live by, 1980). Lakoff and Johnson argue that our language is littered with and constructed around conceptual metaphors that allow us to understand one more abstract idea in terms of another idea that is more concrete. For example, English employs the underlying metaphorical trope that argument is war. We bombard people with arguments, our words are weapons, we shoot people down and our claims are indefensible. In order to understand the abstract concept of arguing, we associate it with the more concrete idea of war in a way that is so pervasive to our thought and discourse that it is arguably subconscious. Lakoff and Johnson found these metaphors to be commonplace in our everyday speech. In the same way that arguments are war, time is money and life is a journey. These metaphors don’t seem to be a mode of language, but instead a way of thinking and categorising ideas that reveals itself in our language. Along these same Whorfian lines of analysis of language and thought, George Orwell, in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, develops a language called Newspeak (an edited Modern English) in which words that would lead to revolution have been eliminated. Orwell claims that if humans cannot form the words to express a revolution, then they cannot revolt. The words that you speak so influence your actions and thoughts that to not speak them can take away any rebellious instinct you may have.

This Whorfian idea of linguistic relativity is discussed a lot in the media because it leads to neat conclusions about identity. The fact that the Danes have the word hygge in their vocabulary to encapsulate the feeling of warmth, security and contentment must mean that Danish people are therefore a happier, more relaxed people. This may seem like a superficial conclusion and it has been widely criticised as an oversimplified and trivial theory that goes beyond linguistic relativity to a stronger hypothesis of linguistic determinism – the idea that language can limit and determine (not just influence) human knowledge and thought. The causal relationships between language use and thought has not yet been proven clearly and studies often revolve around linguists falsely claiming that a particular indigenous tribe has an element of ‘exoticism’ or ‘simplicity’ because their language doesn’t contain the vocabulary for cultural practices that we would consider essential or ‘normal’ in English, such as counting or identifying a wide range of colours.

However, the debate around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is important and relevant in radical and liberal thought. To use language that is exclusionary, divisive or oppressive may influence the way you think, but it might also influence the way that others around you think and act. There are countless examples in society where language is used to create a powerful rhetoric that saturates the media and redirects discourse in a way that can manipulate people’s worldview. When refugees and asylum seekers are repeatedly referred to as migrants who are flooding into our country, the use of vocabulary, metaphor and possessive pronouns are othering and threatening. They shape not only the UK’s identity as a whole, but also the identity of everyone who is immersed in the discourse and adopts it as their own.

As Chomsky said, the aim of social-political activism is to fight for ‘human dignity, freedom and creativity’. If what we say in any way influences the way we think, then language should be an inclusive tool for change, and we must be aware of the power of its creative instinct.

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