The Effect of Language upon Thinking

by Michael Marlowe
April 2004, Revised July 2011

For then will I restore to the peoples a pure language,
that they may all call upon the name of the Lord,
to serve him with one consent.
   Zephaniah 3:9

In recent discussions about theories and methods of translation one often encounters general statements about the relationship of language to thought. Some theorists maintain that the peculiarities of a given language do not significantly affect the thinking of those who speak or write in that language, and so the differences between languages are largely accidental or irrelevent to the meaning of the text. These theorists have a very optimistic view of the ability of translators to put the meaning of a text into different languages in ways that are perfectly natural or idiomatic for the “receptor” languages. For example, the New Testament scholar D.A. Carson says in one place, “Although it is true that [the meanings of] words only partially overlap between languages, nevertheless ‘all languages can talk about the same meaning, and for that matter about all meanings.’ It is just that [translators] ... may have to use entirely different constructions, or resort to paraphrasis ...” 1 Other writers maintain that differences between languages are such that an accurate translation must frequently be unidiomatic in the receptor language, because the idiomatic contructions and usages of the receptor language cannot capture the foreign modes of thought which are inherent in the language of the original text.

The idea that languages affect the way we think has been called a “fallacy” by Carson and by others who advocate paraphrastic translations, and one gets the impression from them that this idea has no standing at all among the “linguistically informed,” as Carson puts it. 2 The idea is portrayed as being an eccentric minority opinion which hardly deserves serious consideration. In this essay I will try to show that the case is otherwise. I will argue that most “liguistically informed” people are, and always have been, of the opinion that language influences thought, and that the contrary opinion has only recently gained the upper hand among professional linguists. It seems to me that the opinion that thought is independent of language has been adopted of late by many linguists only as a theoretical axiom, by those who wish it to be so, without any proof, and that the writers who present this idea as if it were a scientific finding are themselves guilty of a fallacy, because they are treating a presumptive axiom of a school as if it were a conclusion. In science, axioms are often adopted as the basis of hypotheses which are then tested for their adequacy in explaining data collected in some area, and if one hypothesis is found to be more useful than all its rivals it is regarded as “proven” in some sense. But in my reading on this subject I have found that linguists have scarcely begun to test this particular hypothesis in any rigorous scientific fashion, and that most of the research which has been done in recent years suggests that language does influence thought in various ways. Judging by the treatment of the question in journals of the past 30 years it seems to me that linguists who have been opposed in principle to the idea that thought is shaped by language are on the defensive. In any case, it is not true that linguists have arrived at a consensus on the question by any process of scientific proof.

Much of what has been written on this subject by professional linguists focuses rather narrowly on the question of whether the grammar of a language will influence the thinking of its speakers, without any attention being given to how vocabulary might influence thought. But obviously language is more than grammar, and so conclusions about language in general cannot be drawn from studies which deal only with questions of grammar. This essay does not equate language with grammar. The word “language” will be used in reference to the full reality of language, including all the messy details of lexical semantics. I will not enter into all the technicalities of the subject. That would require an introductory course in linguistics. I only aim to give an overview of how the idea that language influences thinking has been expressed in the writings of celebrated philosophers, scientists, literary critics, philologists and linguists. Many of these did not deal with the question in a modern scientific fashion, but I do not think that any of them can be dismissed as linguistically naive. For lack of a better plan I will present this material in historical order.

Although we do not find any extensive discussion of the ways in which language influences thought in the writings of Plato, anyone who has read them will easily see that it was one of his chief concerns to examine how words might relate to concepts and to realities, and to show how people go astray in their thinking when they use words without adequate analysis of the concepts they are supposed to express. Therefore in his Dialogues Plato represents Socrates as a thinker who is continually challenging his disciples to define their words rather than be content with naive and common acceptations. In the Sophist he expresses the idea that “thought (διάνοια) and speech (λόγος) are the same; only the former, which is a silent inner conversation (διάλογος) of the soul with itself, has been given the special name of thought.” 3 In the Philebus he describes the process of thought as a “writer within us” who may use words well or badly. 4 In the dialogue with Cratylus he warns against trying to “learn things through the medium of names” rather than “from the things themselves.” He finds erroneous conceptions in the names of several important things, and rejects the kind of sophistry that would establish the truth about things by discovering it in the etymologies of their Greek names. Cratylus, it should be noted, represents a whole school of thinkers who had been led astray by this kind of sophistry. In the Phaedo, just before he drinks the cup of hemlock, Socrates urges his friends never to say that they have buried him, for they bury only his body, and “to use words wrongly is not merely an error in itself; it also creates evil in the soul.” 5

Aristotle also touches upon problems caused by language here and there in his works. The first few paragraphs of his treatise on logic (Organon) are a discussion of verbal ambiguities and forms of speech. In the last book of this treatise (On Sophistical Refutations) he focuses on problems of language in his discussion of fallacies. He warns that “even in his inward thoughts a man is liable to be deceived, when he examines a matter on the basis of words” (ειτα και καθ αυτον απατασθαι συμβαινει, οταν επι του λογου ποιηται την σκεψιν) 6 and he describes six kinds of logical fallacies that commonly arise from the use of ambiguous words and phrases. These fallacies are exposed by drawing careful distinctions that resolve the ambiguity (chap. 18), but sometimes “it seems they escape the notice of even the most expert” reasoners (Τα δε και τους εμπειροτατους φαινεται λανθανειν, chap. 33). Here Aristotle clearly focuses on the problem of thinking being ensnared in words. Logical fallacies of this kind (which Aristotle calls Σοφισματα παρα την λεξιν, “sophistries connected with diction”) are just as common in polemical writings of our day as they were in ancient Greece. The reality and importance of this linguistic effect on thinking has never been disputed, and it has been discussed by logicians in all ages. 7

At the beginning of the third century of the Christian era we find Tertullian (a prominent theologian) writing about the inseparability of thought and language. In his treatise Against Praxeas (written about A.D. 215), Tertullian deals with the question of how the Logos (word) of God can be spoken of as something proceeding from God and yet also be called God Himself (cf. the prologue of John’s Gospel). He explains that it is because the very thoughts of God are framed in discourse, the “Word” being none other than the objectified form of God’s thoughts. In support of this, he invites readers to consider the operations of their own minds, in which rational thought is so dependent upon words that we might even say “in uttering speech you generate thought.”

Whatever you think, there is a word; whatever you conceive, there is reason. You must needs speak it in your mind; and while you are speaking, you admit speech as an interlocutor with you, involved in which there is this very reason, whereby, while in thought you are holding converse with your word, you are (by reciprocal action) producing thought by means of that converse with your word. Thus, in a certain sense, the word is a second person within you, through which in thinking you utter speech, and through which also (by reciprocity of process), in uttering speech you generate thought. 8

He does not spend time developing this idea at length, but it should be noticed how casually Tertullian makes this assertion about the relationship of thought and language, as if it were a self-evident fact of psychology, which he might confidently use in establishing an important doctrine.

During the course of the third and fourth centuries, theologians who were involved in controversies relating to the Trinity depended upon precise theological definitions for various Latin and Greek words. The meanings of the words persona “person,” substantia “substance,” ὁμοούσιος “same essence,” and ὑπόστασις “individual subsistence” had to be carefully delimited in order to avoid misunderstandings and to promote orthodox thinking about the Godhead.

If it required a demonstration we might find examples of a concern for precision of language in all the ancient and medieval philosophers. Whenever a philosopher begins to focus upon problems of terminology he is trying to make an improvement upon ordinary language, because ordinary language is not sufficiently exact or unambiguous for his purposes. If ordinary language were sufficient, there would be no reason for his laborious definition of terms. But in every field of learning there has always been a gradual development of technical vocabulary which diverges from the ordinary vernacular language of the time. The learned books of antiquity and of the middle ages are full of words that almost no one used in ordinary speech. Indeed, nearly all of the literature of the middle ages is written in a language which was not used at all in ordinary conversation, and so it may be said that for a thousand years the idea that ordinary language would be sufficient to express philosophical or theological ideas was never even entertained. Latin was the language of scholarship, and all the special terminology of the schools was an improvement upon the Latin. Many of the terms used by theologians today (e.g. propitiation, omnipotence) were taken directly from ecclesiastical Latin without ever having been part of a vernacular tongue. 9

In the seventeenth century, philosophers began to examine the relationship of language to thought in a more deliberate way. For example, Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum (published 1620) discusses the fallacies which hinder most men from gaining true knowledge of various things, and he arranges these fallacies under the heads of various “idols” of the popular mind. Under “idols of the market” he discusses the effects of ordinary language upon thought:

There are also idols formed by the reciprocal intercourse and society of man with man, which we call idols of the market, from the commerce and association of men with each other; for men converse by means of language, but words are formed at the will of the generality, and there arises from a bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the mind. Nor can the definitions and explanations with which learned men guard and protect themselves in some instances afford a complete remedy--words still manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and innumerable controversies and fallacies ... The idols of the market are the most troublesome of all, those, namely, which have entwined themselves round the understanding from the associations of words and names. For men imagine that their reason governs words, whilst, in fact, words react upon the understanding; and this has rendered philosophy and the sciences sophistical and inactive. Words are generally formed in a popular sense, and define things by those broad lines which are most obvious to the vulgar mind; but when a more acute understanding, or more diligent observation is anxious to vary those lines, and to adapt them more accurately to nature, words oppose it. 10

Towards the end of the same century John Locke develops this theme at length in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). In a chapter on “The Abuse of Words” he complains that “if men would tell what ideas they make their words stand for, there could not be half that obscurity or wrangling, in the search or support of truth, that there is,” but that “by constant and familiar use” words “charm men into notions far remote from the truth of things.” The notions connected with words have such a hold on men that they are “hardly drawn to quit their mistakes, even in opinions purely philosophical, and where they have no other interest but truth. For the words they have a long time been used to, remaining firm in their minds, it is no wonder that the wrong notions annexed to them should not be removed.” It is plain that Locke ascribes to words a great power to shape and hold fast the opinions of men, though he would wish it otherwise. He protests that words are “the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves.”

In the next century another Englishman, the Rev. Edward Young, gave poetic expression to the idea that language shapes and refines thought. In his didactic poem The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality (1742) he calls speech the “canal of thought:”

Speech, thought’s canal ! speech, thought’s criterion too !
Thought in the mine, may come forth gold, or dross;
When coin’d in words, we know its real worth.
If sterling, store it for thy future use;
‘Twill buy thee benefit; perhaps, renown.
Thought, too, deliver’d, is the more possest;
Teaching, we learn; and giving, we retain
The births of intellect; when dumb, forgot.
Speech ventilates our intellectual fire;
Speech burnishes our mental magazine;
Brightens, for ornament; and whets, for use.

The writings of Locke were very influential in the first half of the eighteenth century, and soon philosophers throughout Europe were building upon his ideas. In 1746 the French philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780) published an Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge), which he conceived as a development of Locke’s epistemology. We quote some paragraphs from Part 2, Section 1, Chapter 15, in an English translation that was published ten years after Condillac’s original French work. 11

“If we recollect that the habit of the imagination and memory depends entirely on the connection of ideas, and that the latter is formed by the relation and analogy of signs, we shall be convinced that the less a language abounds in analogous expressions, the less assistance it gives to the memory and imagination. Therefore it is not at all proper for the exertion or display of talents. It is with languages as with geometrical signs; they give a new insight into things, and dilate the mind in proportion as they are more perfect.... The success of geniuses who have had the happiness even of the best organization, depends entirely on the progress of the language in regard to the age in which they live; for words answer to geometrical signs, and the manner of using them to methods of calculation. In a language therefore defective in words, or whose construction is not sufficiently easy and convenient, we should meet with the same obstacles as occurred in geometry before the invention of algebra.” (§147, pp. 287-88)

“Perhaps some will object that men of genius ... might have borrowed of the learned languages that assistance which they could not receive from their mother tongue. I answer that people having been accustomed to conceive things as expressed in the language which they had learnt from their infancy, their minds must have been naturally confined. They could not be offended with the want of precision, because they had habituated themeselves to it; consequently they were not as yet capable of deriving such assistance from the learned languages.” (§148, p. 288-9)

“If the language of these rude and ignorant people obstructs the progress of the mind, let us give it one degree of perfection, nay let us give it two, three, or four; the obstacle shall still continue, nor can it diminish, but in proportion to the degrees of perfection added to that language. Therefore it will not be entirely removed, till the language has acquired very near as many degrees of perfection, as ours had, when it first began to furnish us with good writers. Consequently, it is demonstrable that there can be no such thing as superior genius, till the language of a nation has been considerably improved.” (§150, p. 290)

“I do not in the least doubt that I shall be contradicted in what I have advanced concerning the character of articulate sounds. I have frequently met with persons who look upon all languages as equally adapted for all kinds of writing, and who pretend that a man with the same organization as Corneille, in whatever age he lived, and in whatever tongue he wrote, would have given the same proofs of his superiority of genius. Signs are arbitrary the first time they are employed, which is the reason perhaps that some imagine they can have no character. But I would fain know whether it be not natural for every nation to combine their ideas according to their own peculiar genius; and to connect a certain fund of principal ideas with different adventitious notions, according as they are differently affected. Now these combinations authorized by time and custom, are properly what constitutes the character of a language. It may be more or less diffused; for this depends on the number and variety of the expressions received, and on its analogy, which affords the means of inventing new phrases when wanted. But it is not in the power of man entirely to change this character. As soon as he departs from it, he speaks a foreign tongue, and ceases to be understood. It is the work of time to produce such considerable changes, by reducing a whole nation to such circumstances as shall engage them to consider things in quite a different light.” (§160, pp. 297-8)

Johann Gottfried Von Herder If we go over to Germany later in the same century we encounter another treatment of the relationship of language to thought in the works of Johann Gottfried Von Herder. In his essay On Diligence in Several Learned Languages (Über den Fleiß in mehreren gelehrten Sprachen, 1764) he writes, “What exactly is the connection between language and mode of thought? Whoever surveys the whole scope of a language surveys a field of thoughts and whoever learns to express himself with exactness precisely thereby gathers for himself a treasure of determinate concepts. The first words that we babble are the most important foundation stones of the understanding, and our nursemaids are our first teachers of logic.” 12 In his Fragments on Recent German Literature (Fragmente über die neuere deutsche Literatur, 1767) Herder maintains that language is “the form of cognition, not merely in which but also in accordance with which thoughts take shape, where in all parts of literature thought sticks [klebt] to expression, and forms itself in accordance with this.... Language sets limits and contour for all human cognition.” 13 Herder was primarily interested in language as it is used by poets, not philosophers, and he went on to write a profound analysis of the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament, The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry 14

In 1788 the American lexicographer Noah Webster wrote an essay in which he purposed “to show how far truth and accuracy of thinking are concerned in a clear understanding of words.” Webster urges the importance of this subject because “the mere use of words has led nations into error, and still continues the delusion,” and he notices how the linguistic limitations of uncivilized and uneducated people have tended to hamper the communication of theological ideas:

We are informed by Ludolph that the Ethiopians, having but one word for nature and person, could not understand the controversy about Christ’s two natures. This is not surprising; nations in a savage state, or which have not been accustomed to metaphysical disquisitions, have no terms to communicate abstract ideas, which they never entertained; and hence the absurdity of attempting to christianize savages. Before men can be Christians they must be civilized; nay, they must be philosophers. It is probable that many who are called Christians are in the state of the Ethiopians with respect to the same doctrine; and that they pass through life without ever having any clear ideas of the different natures of Christ. Yet the distinction is constantly made in words; and that distinction passes for a difference of ideas. Such is the influence of language on opinion. 15

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, who is called the father of modern chemistry, took up this subject in the Preface to his Elements of Chemistry (1789). There he explains that his first intention when he began writing this book was to explain his views “on the necessity of reforming and completing the Nomenclature of Chemistry,” having seen the bad effects of so many misleading terms which had accumulated in the field of chemistry. “While engaged in the composition of my Elements of Chemistry, I perceived, better than I had ever done before, the truth of an observation of Condillac, that we think only through the medium of words, and that languages are true analytic methods. Algebra, which, of all our modes of expression, is the most simple, the most exact, and the best adapted to its purpose, is, at the same time, a language and an analytic method. The art of reasoning is nothing more than a language well arranged.” 16

The new nomenclature developed by Lavoisier was immediately recognized as “a striking illustration of the effect of appropriated and well-defined expressions, in aiding the intellectual powers” by the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), who in his treatise on cognitive psychology (Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, 1792) emphasized the power of language “as an instrument of thought.” 17

Poets and other literary men have always known what power there is in language. Early in the nineteenth century, the English poet William Wordsworth declared that even in matters of style the form of expression used by a writer is “a constituent part and power or function in the thought,” and he warned that the florid and trifling poetic style which was then popular was destructive of any authentic feelings of solemnity and pensiveness among the English people. In his Essays Upon Epitaphs (1810) he maintained that stylistic qualities of language hold such “dominion over thoughts” that the mentality of a people may be either enobled or debased by them.

In a bulky volume of Poetry entitled Elegant Extracts in Verse, which must be known to most of my Readers, as it is circulated everywhere and in fact constitutes at this day the poetical library of our Schools, I find a number of epitaphs in verse, of the last century; and there is scarcely one which is not thoroughly tainted by the artifices which have over-run our writings in metre since the days of Dryden and Pope. Energy, stillness, grandeur, tenderness, those feelings which are the pure emanations of Nature, those thoughts which have the infinitude of truth, and those expressions which are not what the garb is to the body but what the body is to the soul, themselves a constituent part and power or function in the thought—all these are abandoned for their opposites,—as if our countrymen, through successive generations, had lost the sense of solemnity and pensiveness (not to speak of deeper emotions) and resorted to the tombs of their forefathers and contemporaries, only to be tickled and surprised. Would we not recoil from such gratification, in such a place, if the general literature of the country had not co-operated with other causes insidiously to weaken our sensibilities and deprave our judgments? Doubtless, there are shocks of event and circumstance, public and private, by which for all minds the truths of Nature will be elicited; but sorrow for that individual or people to whom these special interferences are necessary, to bring them into communion with the inner spirit of things! for such intercourse must be profitless in proportion as it is unfrequently irregular and transient. Words are too awful an instrument for good and evil, to be trifled with; they hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts. If words be not (recurring to a metaphor before used) an incarnation of the thought, but only a clothing for it, then surely will they prove an ill gift; such a one as those possessed vestments, read of in the stories of superstitious times, which had power to consume and to alienate from his right mind the victim who put them on. Language, if it do not uphold, and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve. 18

At about the same time, the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher published an essay “On the Different Methods of Translating” (1813), in which he expressed the concept thus:

Every human being is, on the one hand, in the power of the language he speaks; he and his whole thinking are a product of it. He cannot, with complete certainty, think anything that lies outside the limits of language. The form of his concepts, the way and means of connecting them, is outlined for him through the language in which he is born and educated; intellect and imagination are bound by it. On the other hand, however, every freethinking and intellectually spontaneous human being also forms the language himself. For how else, but through these influences, would it have come to be and to grow from its first raw state to its more perfect formation in scholarship and art? 19

Shortly afterwards we find Karl W.F. Solger (professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin), in a series of lectures delivered in 1819, expressing the idea that “thinking” practically depends upon language, and that the two “reciprocally condition each other.”

The origin of speech is one with the origin of thought, which is not possible in reality without speech [welches in der Wirklichkeit ohne Sprache nicht möglich ist]. Thought is subjective speech, as speech is objective thought—the outward appearance of thought itself. Neither is possible without the other; and both reciprocally condition each other. 20

During this period, scholarly interest in the differences between languages was stimulated by the world-wide missionary efforts undertaken by Christians in Europe and America. A number of missionary societies were formed between 1790 and 1810, and by 1815 they were spreading Christianity in remote areas of the world, which few white men had ever visited before. 21 Christian missionaries were in many cases the first Europeans to learn languages wholly unrelated to the Indo-European languages. A common complaint in their reports was the difficulties they encountered in trying to communicate even the basic concepts of the Christian faith in these exotic languages. In 1817 the English essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “The extreme difficulty, and often the impossibility, of finding words for the simplest moral and intellectual processes in the languages of uncivilized tribes has proved perhaps the weightiest obstacle to the progress of our most zealous and adroit missionaries.” 22

In 1827 a popular theologian on the western frontier of America, Alexander Campbell, published a short essay on the “The Trinitarian System” in which he asserts that it is “universally admitted by the reflecting part of mankind” that “all men think or form ideas by means of words or images.” In an exposition of the first sentence of John’s Gospel he writes:

The Holy Spirit selected the name Word, and therefore we may safely assert that this is the best, if not the only term, in the whole vocabulary of human speech at all adapted to express that relation which existed “in the beginning,” or before time, between our Saviour and his God.

These postulata being stated, I proceed to inquire what sort of a relation does this term represent? And here every thing is plain and easy of comprehension. I shall state numerically a few things universally admitted by the reflecting part of mankind:—

1st. A word is a sign or representative of a thought or an idea, and is the idea in an audible or visible form. It is the exact image of that invisible thought which is a perfect secret to all the world until it is expressed.

2d. All men think or form ideas by means of words or images; so that no man can think without words or symbols of some sort.

3d. Hence it follows that the word and the idea which it represents, are co-etaneous, or of the same age or antiquity. It is true the word may not be uttered or born for years or ages after the idea exists, but still the word is just as old as the idea.

4th. The idea and the word are nevertheless distinct from each other, though the relation between them is the nearest known on earth. An idea cannot exist without a word, nor a word without an idea.

5th. He that is acquainted with the word, is acquainted with the idea, for the idea is wholly in the word.

Now let it be most attentively observed and remembered, that these remarks are solely intended to exhibit the relation which exists between a word and an idea, and that this relation is of a mental nature, and more akin to the spiritual system than any relation created, of which we know any thing. It is a relation of the most sublime order; and no doubt the reason why the name Word is adopted by the apostle in this sentence was because of its superior ability to represent to us the divine relation existing between God and the Saviour prior to his becoming the Son of God. By putting together the above remarks on the term word, we have a full view of what John intended to communicate.

As a word is an exact image of an idea, so is “The Word” an exact image of the invisible God. As a word cannot exist without an idea, nor an idea without a word; so God never was without “The Word,” nor “The Word” without God; or as a word is of equal age, or co-etaneous with its idea, so “The Word” and God are co-eternal. And as an idea does not create its word, nor a word its idea; so God did not create “The Word,” nor “The Word” God. 23

Although the writings of Campbell give us little reason to think that he had studied the writings of the ancient Church Fathers, his theological use of the concept developed here seems to be an elaboration of the idea briefly expressed by Tertullian, as quoted above.

Back in Germany again, in 1832 a philologist named Johann Adam Hartung wrote:

It is a truth as simple as it is fruitful, that language is no arbitrary, artificial, and gradual invention of the reflective understanding, but a necessary and organic product of human nature, appearing contemporaneously with the activity of thought. Speech is the correlate of thought; both require and condition each other like body and soul, and are developed at the same time and in the same degree, both in the case of the individual and the nation. Words are the coinage of conceptions freeing themselves from the dark chaos of intimations and feelings, and gaining shape and clearness. In so far as a man uses and is master of language, has he also attained clearness of thought; the developed and spoken language of a people is its expressed intelligence. 24

Wilhelm von HumboldtAt about the same time, another German philologist named Wilhelm Von Humboldt was writing a treatise on this subject. For years he had devoted himself to the study of various non-European languages, including those of the American Indians, having obtained grammars and dictionaries of them written by Christian missionaries. He studied tribal languages of the Pacific islands and East Indies as well. In 1836 he published a book titled On the Kawi Language on the Island of Java (1836) with a general introduction on The Diversity of Human Language-Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind. 25 This introduction was in itself a lengthy treatise, and it has been called “the first great book on general linguistics.” 26 As the title suggests, the diversity (Verschiedenheit) of human languages and cultures, and the connections between language and thought, were major themes of Humboldt’s research. His primary interest was not in the discourse of philosophers (Locke), nor in the artistic language of poets (Herder), but in the ordinary languages of various peoples around the world. Although Humboldt was well aware of the similarities among the languages he studied, he was much impressed with the differences he found, and he believed that these linguistic differences played a part in the maintenance of corresponding differences in culture and mentality between peoples. The following sentence from his treatise summarizes his view of the connection of language to thought.

Man lives with objects [around him] mainly, or rather — as feeling and action depend on the ideas which he entertains about the objects — exclusively in the way in which language presents them to him. The very activity by which he spins language out from within himself eventually gets himself entwined in it, and every language draws a circle around the nation to which it belongs, and which one can only leave to the extent that at the same time one enters the circle of another. 27

The fundamental idea here is that people use language to think, so languages will tend to shape the thoughts of the peoples who use them. But unlike Bacon and Locke, who spoke of the effects of language mainly in a negative and cautionary way so that people might escape linguistic traps and transcend the limits of ordinary language, Humboldt emphasized the creative and positive aspect of this psychological fact. By adding meaning to the world of objects, languages help their users to make sense of the world, though in diverse ways.

Students who are familiar with the history of cognitive psychology will at once see the connection of Humboldt’s view of language with Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of mind. Kant in his enormously influential Critique of Pure Reason (1781) had explained that the human mind is not merely a “blank slate” upon which the objective world makes its impressions, but an organ which actively organizes the world according to categories. Robert H. Robins in his Short History of Linguistics explains how Humboldt applied this concept to language:

Kant’s theory of perception involved sensations produced by the external world being ordered by categories or ‘intuitions’ (Anschauungen) imposed by the mind, notably those of space, time, and causality. This was a universal philosophical theory; Humboldt adapted it relativistically and linguistically by making the innere Sprachform of each language responsible for the ordering and categorizing of the data of experience, so that speakers of different languages live partly in different worlds and have different systems of thinking. 28

Humboldt’s theory of the relationship of language and thought was quickly seconded by an English philologist, John W. Donaldson, who in 1839 wrote:

... the human mind is naturally impatient of pure thought: it strives ever after objectivity, and endeavours to complete and fix its inward conceptions by some species or other of outward manifestation; the thought completes itself in the expression. Even if a man were placed alone in the world with all the faculties which he now enjoys, he would give names to the different objects of animal creation as they passed in review before him, he would seize upon some one prominent attribute in each class and mark it by a name of distinction. 29

John Stuart MillIn the middle of the nineteenth century, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill discussed the effect of language upon thought in several chapters of his wide-ranging book, A System of Logic. 30 He introduces the subject by quoting sentences he attributes to his colleague Alexander Bain:

“Names [i.e. nouns] are impressions of sense, and as such take the strongest hold on the mind, and of all other impressions can be most easily recalled and retained in view. They therefore serve to give a point of attachment to all the more volatile objects of thought and feeling. Impressions, that when past might be dissipated for ever, are, by their connexion with language, always within reach. Thoughts, of themselves, are perpetually slipping out of the field of immediate mental vision; but the name abides with us, and the utterance of it restores them in a moment. Words are the custodiers of every product of mind less impressive than themselves. All extensions of human knowledge, all new generalizations, are fixed and spread, even unintentionally, by the use of words. The child growing up learns, along with the vocables of his mother-tongue, that things which he would have believed to be different, are, in important points, the same. Without any formal instruction, the language in which we grow up teaches us all the common philosophy of the age. It directs us to observe and know things which we should have overlooked; it supplies us with classifications ready made, by which things are arranged (as far as the light of by-gone generations admits) with the objects to which they bear the greatest total resemblance. The number of general names in a language, and the degree of generality of those names, afford a test of the knowledge of the era, and of the intellectual insight which is the birth-right of any one born into it.” (Bk. 4, chap. 3, p. 398)

In his discussion of the “requisites of a language adapted for the investigation of truth,” Mill observes that it is difficult for the human mind to make progress in any complex subject without modifications of ordinary language. A set of technical terms is usually needed, and “whatever we have occasion to think of often, and for scientific purposes, ought to have a name appropriated to it” (p. 421). This is not merely for the sake of brevity of expression, but also for the clarity and sturdiness of our thinking:

Whenever, for purposes of Induction, we find it necessary to introduce ... some new conception ... it is of importance that this new conception, or this new result of abstraction, should have a name appropriated to it; especially if the circumstance it involves be one which leads to many consequences, or which is likely to be found also in other classes of phenomena. No doubt, in most cases of the kind, the meaning might be conveyed by joining together several words already in use. But when a thing has to be often spoken of, there are more reasons than the saving of time and space for speaking of it in the most concise manner possible. What darkness would be spread over geometrical demonstration, if wherever the word circle is used, the definition of a circle were inserted instead of it.... But there is another reason, in addition to that of promoting perspicuity, for giving a brief and compact name to each of the more considerable results of abstraction which are obtained in the course of our intellectual phenomena. By naming them, we fix our attention upon them; we keep them more constantly before the mind. The names are remembered, and being remembered, suggest their definition; while if instead of specific and characteristic names, the meaning had been expressed by putting together a number of other names, that particular combination of words already in common use for other purposes would have had nothing to make itself remembered by. If we want to render a particular combination of ideas permanent in the mind, there is nothing which clenches it like a name specially devoted to express it.... If instead of speaking of momentum, it had been necessary to say “the product of the number of units of velocity in the velocity by the number of units of mass in the mass,” many of the dynamical truths now apprehended by means of this comples idea, would probably have escaped notice for want of recalling the idea itself with sufficient readiness and familiarity. And on subjects less remote from the topics of popular discussion, whoever wishes to draw attention to some new or unfamiliar distinction among things, will find no way so sure as to invent or select suitable names for the express purpose of marking it.... Hardly any original thoughts on mental or social subjects ever make their way among mankind or assume their proper importance in the minds even of their inventors, until aptly selected words or phrases have as it were nailed them down and held them fast. (Bk. 4, chap. 6, pp. 424-6)

In 1851 the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer published an essay “Über Sprache und Worte” (On Language and Words) in which he argued that when a person learns new languages “he learns not merely words, but gains the concepts” marked out by the foreign words, and so “in each language a man will think differently” 31

Richard Chevenix TrenchIn the same year, the English theologian and philologist Richard Chevenix Trench delivered a series of lectures On the Study of Words 32 in which he (like Coleridge) observed that a linguistic deficiency often hinders the teaching and reception of Christian truths. Trench explains that this problem arises because ideas cannot be clearly developed and grasped without a corresponding linguistic development:

You cannot impart to any man more than the words which he understands either now contain, or can be made, intelligibly to him, to contain. Language is as truly on one side the limit and restraint of thought, as on the other side that which feeds and unfolds thought. (p. 20.)

In poetic manner, Trench compares a well-developed language to a piece of amber that seals and preserves what it encloses:

Language is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved. It has arrested ten thousand lightning flashes of genius, which, unless thus fixed and arrested, might have been as bright, but would have also been as quickly passing and perishing, as the lightning. (p. 25.)

Likewise, in the generation following Trench, the American theologian William G.T. Shedd wrote:

The success and enduring influence of any systematic construction of truth, be it sacred or secular, depends as much upon an exact terminology, as upon close and deep thinking itself. Indeed, unless the results to which the human mind arrives are plainly stated, and firmly fixed in an exact phraseology, its thinking is to very little purpose in the end. ‘Terms,’ says Whewell, ‘record discoveries.’ * There may be the most thorough analysis, and the most comprehensive and combining synthesis; the truth in its deepest and most scientific form may be reached by the individual mind; and yet the public mind and after ages be none the wiser for it. That which was seen it may be with crystal clearness, and in bold outline, in the consciousness of an individual thinker, may fail to become the property and possession of mankind at large, because it is not transferred from the individual to the general mind, by means of a precise phraseology, and a rigorous terminology. Nothing is in its own nature more fugacious and shifting than thought; and particularly thought upon the mysteries of Christianity. A conception that is plain and accurate in the understanding of the first man becomes obscure and false in that of the second, because it was not grasped, and firmly held, in the form and proportions with which it first came up, and then handed over to other minds, a fixed and scientific quantity. 33

Also in America, John A. Broadus (a leading light of scholarship among Southern Baptists), emphasized the connection of thought and language. Using terms borrowed from Wordsworth, he wrote:

Thus understood [as including diction], style is obviously a matter of very great importance. A man’s style cannot be separated from his modes of thought, from his whole mental character. The natural and common image by which we call it the dress of thought, is very apt to mislead; for style, as Wordsworth forcibly says, is not the mere dress, it is the incarnation of thought. 34

In 1871 the English naturalist Charles Darwin, who is today remembered mostly for his part in developing the theory of biological evolution, wrote: “A long and complex train of thought can no more be carried on without the aid of words, whether spoken or silent, than a long calculation without the use of figures or algebra.” Darwin sought to explain human intelligence itself as a development spurred on by the profound influence of language upon the human mind. 35

In the 1880’s, we find the American biblical scholar Charles A. Briggs applying Humboldt’s views of language to his field of study:

The languages of the Bible were prepared by Divine Providence as the most suitable ones for declaring the divine revelation to mankind.... Language is the product of the human soul, as are thought and emotion, and, therefore, depends upon the constitution of that soul, the historical experiences of the family or race speaking it, especially the stage of development in civilization, morals, and religion. The connection between language and thought is not loose, but an essential connection. Language is not merely a dress that thought may put on or off at its pleasure; it is the body of which thought is the soul; it is the flesh and rounded form of which thought is the life and energy.... The languages of the Bible being the only adequate means of conveying and perpetuating the divine revelation, it is important that we should learn them not merely from the outside, with grammar and lexicon, but also from the inside, from a proper conception of the genius and life of these tongues as employed by the ancient saints, and especially of the historical genius of the languages as the sacred channels of the Spirit’s thought and life. 36

William JamesIn the last decade of the nineteenth century the American psychologist William James attained prominence with the publication of his Principles of Psychology (1890), in which he had much to say on the relationship of language to thought. In chapter 7 of this book, “The Methods and Snares of Psychology,” James observes that the “absence of a special vocabulary for subjective facts hinders the study of all but the very coarsest of them,” and continues thus:

Empiricist writers are very fond of emphasizing one great set of delusions which language inflicts on the mind. Whenever we have made a word, they say, to denote a certain group of phenomena, we are prone to suppose a substantive entity existing beyond the phenomena, of which the word shall be the name. But the lack of a word quite as often leads to the directly opposite error. We are then prone to suppose that no entity can be there; and so we come to overlook phenomena whose existence would be patent to us all, had we only grown up to hear it familiarly recognized in speech. It is hard to focus our attention on the nameless, and so there results a certain vacuousness in the descriptive parts of most psychologies. 37

Here and there in the same work James enters into very elaborate discussions of how language affects thinking. His discursive manner of writing does not lend itself to short aphoristic excerpts, but we will give a specimen from chapter 13, “Discrimination and Comparison.” Here James discusses the ways in which words assist the mind in making distinctions in ordinary life, and he uses as an example the distinction between “claret” and “burgundy” wine. He concludes that “the names differ far more than the flavors, and help to stretch these latter farther apart.” he continues:

The reader may say that this has nothing to do with making us feel the difference between the two terms. It is merely fixing, identifying, and so to speak substantializing, the terms. But what we feel as their difference, we should feel, even though we were unable to name or otherwise identify the terms.

To which I reply that I believe that the difference is always concreted and made to seem more substantial by recognizing the terms. I went out for instance the other day and found that the snow just fallen had a very odd look, different from the common appearance of snow. I presently called it a ‘micaceous’ look; and it seemed to me as if, the moment I did so, the difference grew more distinct and fixed than it was before. The other connotations of the word ‘micaceous’ dragged the snow farther away from ordinary snow and seemed even to aggravate the peculiar look in question. I think some such effect as this on our way of feeling a difference will be very generally admitted to follow from naming the terms between which it obtains; although I admit myself that it is difficult to show coercively that naming or otherwise identifying any given pair of hardly distinguishable terms is essential to their being felt as different at first. 38

Because this book is regarded as one of the most important books on psychology ever to appear in English, we will give one more excerpt, from chapter 21, “The Perception of Reality.”

The opinion so stoutly professed by many, that language is essential to thought, seems to have this much of truth in it, that all our inward images tend invincibly to attach themselves to something sensible, so as to gain in corporeity and life. Words serve this purpose, gestures serve it, stones, straws, chalk-marks, anything will do. As soon as anyone of these things stands for the idea, the latter seems to be more real. Some persons, the present writer among the number, can hardly lecture without a black-board: the abstract conceptions must be symbolized by letters, squares or circles, and the relations between them by lines. All this symbolism, linguistic, graphic, and dramatic, has other uses too, for it abridges thought and fixes terms. But one of its uses is surely to rouse the believing reaction and give to the ideas a more living reality. As, when we are told a story, and shown the very knife that did the murder, the very ring whose hiding-place the clairvoyant revealed, the whole thing passes from fairy-land to mother-earth, so here we believe all the more, if only we see that ‘the bricks are alive to tell the tale.’ 39

In the twentieth century the idea which we have been tracing through history attains more and more acceptance. The idea becomes conventional, and is frequently put forth in the writings of scholars and scientists in various fields. For example, in 1911 the Jewish-German anthropologist Franz Boas, who had emigrated to America in 1886, wrote:

When we try to think at all clearly, we think, on the whole, in words; and it is well known that, even in the advancement of science, inaccuracy of vocabulary has often been a stumbling-block which has made it difficult to reach accurate conclusions. The same words may be used with different significance, and by assuming the word to have the same significance always, erroneous conclusions may he reached. It may also be that the word expresses only part of an idea, so that owing to its use the full range of the subject-matter discussed may not be recognized. In the same manner the words may be too wide in their significance, including a number of distinct ideas the differences of which in the course of the development of the language were not recognized. 40

Edward SapirThe American linguist Edward Sapir, who was also a Jewish emigrant from Germany, studied languages at Columbia University, where he also studied anthropology under Boas. Afterwards he spent several years immersed in the study of American Indian languages and cultures. Like Boas, Sapir saw how thoroughly languages are enmeshed in their cultural contexts, and he believed that the scientific study of language could not be separated from anthropology and psychology. Sapir was a brilliant man, and he quickly attained prominence as a professor of philology 41 at the University of Chicago and then at Yale. Today he is regarded as one of the two “fathers of American linguistics” (the other being Leonard Bloomfield, his colleague at Chicago). In his book Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (1921) Sapir wrote:

Most people, asked if they can think without speech, would probably answer, “Yes, but it is not easy for me to do so. Still I know it can be done.” Language is but a garment! But what if language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove? It is, indeed, in the highest degree likely that language is an instrument originally put to uses lower than the conceptual plane and that thought arises as a refined interpretation of its content. The product grows, in other words, with the instrument, and thought may be no more conceivable, in its genesis and daily practice, without speech than is mathematical reasoning practicable without the lever of an appropriate mathematical symbolism. No one believes that even the most difficult mathematical proposition is inherently dependent on an arbitrary set of symbols, but it is impossible to suppose that the human mind is capable of arriving at or holding such a proposition without the symbolism. The writer, for one, is strongly of the opinion that the feeling entertained by so many that they can think, or even reason, without language is an illusion. 42

In an article published in 1929 he wrote:

Language is a guide to ‘social reality.’ Though language is not ordinarily thought of as of essential interest to the students of social science, it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which 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. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. 43

During the 1930’s and 40’s linguistic problems were keenly felt by atomic physicists wo were trying to express the new theories of quantum mechanics in German and English. In 1930 the German physicist Werner Heisenberg noted that “limitations of our language” prevented it:

Light and matter are both single entities, and the apparent duality arises in the limitations of our language. It is not surprising that our language should be incapable of describing the processes occurring within the atoms, for, as has been remarked, it was invented to describe the experiences of daily life, and these consist only of processes involving exceedingly large numbers of atoms. Furthermore, it is very difficult to modify our language so that it will be able to describe these atomic processes, for words can only describe things of which we can form mental pictures, and this ability, too, is a result of daily experience. Fortunately, mathematics is not subject to this limitation, and it has been possible to invent a mathematical scheme—the quantum theory—which seems entirely adequate for the treatment of atomic processes; for visualisation, however, we must content ourselves with two incomplete analogies—the wave picture and the corpuscular picture. 44

The British physicist James H. Jeans believed that habits of mind connected with language have seriously interfered with the progress of science. In a book published in 1943, he quotes Bertrand Russell’s statement that ‘grammar and ordinary language are bad guides to metaphysics. A great book might be written showing the influence of syntax on philosophy,’ and he gives an example from the physics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

When it had become clear that light was of an undulatory nature, physicists argued that if there were undulations, there must be something to undulate—one cannot have a verb without a noun. And so the luminiferous ether became established in scientific thought as ‘the nominative of the verb to undulate,’ and misled physics for over a century. 45

In 1937 the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset takes up this theme in an essay on “the Misery and Splendor of Translation,” in which he asserts that “our thought is in great measure attributable to the tongue,” for “it turns out that thinking is talking to oneself.” 46

Also during the 30’s and 40’s Benjamin Lee Whorf, one of Sapir’s students at Yale, was elaborating upon Sapir’s statements regarding the relationship of language to thought. In an article published in 1940 he wrote:

...the background linguistic system ... of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds -- and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way -- an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees....

From this fact proceeds what I have called the ‘linguistic relativity principle,’ which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers, but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world. 47

This concept of the relationship of language to thought, which Whorf called “linguistic relativity,” has come to be known as the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” or simply the “Whorfian hypothesis,” but as we have seen in our historical review of the idea, the basic concept underlying this so-called “Whorfian hypothesis” did not originate with Whorf. He and Sapir merely elaborated upon an idea that had become a commonplace among intellectuals in several fields of study long before the beginning of the twentieth century. The basic idea was clearly set forth by Humboldt in the early part of the nineteenth century, and therefore the word “Humboldtian” is sometimes used (especially in Europe) in reference to the whole tradition stemming from his influence.

By 1950 the concept of linguistic relativity had come to be regarded as an uncontroversial truism in many circles. The use made of this concept by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-four (published in 1949) may be cited as an example of how far it had become a commonplace among intellectuals. Orwell’s novel portrays a future totalitarian socialist regime in England where the offical language is “Newspeak”:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least as far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect method. This was done partly by the invention of new words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

The idea plays a large role not only in the imagination of novelists but in the writings of respected philologists. For example, the Hebrew scholar William Chomsky (whose son Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, will be discussed below) introduced students to the study of Hebrew with the following observations in a book published in 1957:

Language is not merely a means of expression and communication; it is an instrument of experiencing, thinking, and feeling ... Our ideas and experiences are not independent of language; they are all integral parts of the same pattern, the warp and woof of the same texture. We do not first have thoughts, ideas, feelings, and then put them into a verbal framework. We think in words, by means of words. Language and experience are inextricably interwoven, and the awareness of one awakens the other. Words and idioms are as indispensible to our thoughts and experiences as are colors and tints to a painting. 48

In 1958 the American linguist Eugene Nida wrote:

Whatever we may personally think of structural analysis as divorced from meaning or of the influence of grammatical categories on thought processes, we must certainly admit the close relationship between language and culture. Language cannot be properly treated except in terms of its status and function as a part, a process, and, to some degree, a model of culture, with a high degree of reciprocal reinforcement. Though one may not wish to go all the way with Whorf, nevertheless, one cannot escape the fact that language seems to provide the ‘grooves for thought’ in the same way that cultural patterns constitute the molds for more general modes of behavior. 49

Although Nida later expressed disagreement with Whorf’s stronger formulations of the theory of linguisitic relativity, and insisted that “anything that can be said in one language can be said in another,” in 1986 he acknowledged that most scholars do accept a weaker formulation which says that language influences thinking: “Whorf regarded language as largely determinative, but most other scholars have taken the position that the structure of language simply increases the facility with which people recognize certain distinctions …” 50

The state of the question in 1960 may be seen by its treatment in a popular work by the British linguist Simeon Potter. In the introduction of his book Language in the Modern World he writes:

The worlds in which different social communities live are separate worlds, not just one world with different linguistic labels attached. An American and a Russian may converse pleasantly in Esparanto about travel, food, dress, and sport, but they may be quite incapable of talking seriously in Esparanto about religion, science, or philosophy. ‘Men imagine,’ as Francis Bacon said long ago, ‘that their minds have command of language; but it often happens that language bears rule over their minds.’ Whether we like it or not, we are all very much under the spell of that particular form of speech which has become the medium of discourse for our society. Let us recognize this truth, and the truth shall make us free. As our world draws more closely together, and as the need for understanding the motives of human conduct grows ever more pressing, so it becomes increasingly necessary for us English-speaking people to reconsider that all too facile notion that we need not bother our heads very seriously about language-learning because all the rest of the world will be able and willing to talk to us in bad English before the dawn of the twenty-first century. 51

Later on in the same book, in a chapter on “Language and Thought,” Potter concludes that the “so-called Whorfian hypothesis” that “a man’s outlook on life is in some measure predetermined for him by the structure of the language he learns as a child” has “probably been exaggerated by its more exuberant proponents, and yet few experienced philologists would gainsay its intrinsic truth.” 52

It was in the late 1950’s that many professional linguists, especially in America, began to reject “linguistic relativity” as a matter of principle. In order to understand the reasons for this, I will go back and observe the development taking place in the 1930’s and 1940’s under the influence of Leonard Bloomfield, who began to take American linguistics in a new direction. Whereas Sapir had emphasized the particularity of languages and the need to study them in their cultural contexts, Bloomfield wanted to abstract the study of linguistic phenomena from anthropological, psychological, historical, and literary studies so that linguistics might come into its own as a separate science. Sapir had resisted efforts along this line, and at Yale he opposed the creation of a Department of Linguistics because saw the study of language as an activity which should be pursued by scholars with extensive training in other disciplines. But the movement towards specialization was strong, and it was at this time that the word “linguistics” came to be preferred by those who shared Bloomfield’s vision of the new approach. Bloomfield described the difference between a linguist and a philologist in this way:

The student of literature observes the utterances of certain persons (say, of a Shakspere) and concerns himself with the content and with the unusual features of form. The interest of the philologist is even broader, for he is concerned with the cultural significance and background of what he reads. The linguist, on the other hand, studies the language of all persons alike; the individual features in which the language of a great writer differs from the ordinary speech of his time and place, interest the linguist no more than do the individual features of any other person’s speech, and much less than do the features that are common to all speakers. 53

Another thing to be observed in Bloomfield’s paragraph above is the focus upon spoken and not written language. Further, we note that about this time among linguists there was a new emphasis on the so-called synchronic study of a language, its total structure at one point in time, rather than upon the diachronic or historical approach.

In the generation following Bloomfield the independence of linguistics as an academic discipline was established, and linguists developed their own technical jargon for the purpose of precise description and analysis of various features of languages (e.g. lexeme, morpheme, phoneme, basilect, acrolect, idiolect, and so on). The tendency toward abstraction of “linguistics” from historical and cultural studies led to the creation of new academic departments in Linguistics in universities.

Linguists were now moving away from the focus upon particularities and differences in languages as their studies focused more and more upon basic elements to be found in all languages. This tendency gained force in the late 1950’s and 60’s with the work of the American linguist Noam Chomsky, who began to work out a general theory of universal grammar. Chomsky theorized that beneath all the variety of different languages there is a common and innate mental sub-structure which “generates” language. The “deep structures” of language are conceived as a kind of inherited human grammar in which “kernel statements” are “transformed” and built up into sentences. 54 This universal theory of syntax, as Chomsky calls it, met with immediate and widespread acceptance by linguists during the 60’s, especially in America, and to this day the “transformational-generative” or “Chomskyan” approach continues to have a heavy influence over theoretical linguistics. Under this approach there is obviously little room for any emphasis upon the importance of linguistic peculiarities, or indeed for any examination of the ways in which languages may affect thinking. In fact the Chomskyan linguistic theory is prejudicial to the question, and practically rules out the whole idea of linguistic relativity on a basic theoretical level.

What were the reasons for the great popularity of Chomsky’s views among linguists? I think there are two main reasons for it. One of them, which has already been indicated above, is the fact that the establishment of “linguistics” as a separate discipline practically required an emphasis on universals. If the focus was to be upon language as such, abstracted from cultural and psychological studies, then that which was common to all languages necessarily became the subject-matter of the field. We see therefore an artificial professional bias at work here. The second reason is that the emphasis upon universals was especially compatible with the internationalist and egalitarian spirit of the intellectual culture of the age. After the end of the Second World War there was a great emphasis placed upon the idea that “people are the same everywhere,” and if diversity was acknowledged it was trivialized, merely a matter of skin color, national costume, and so forth. There was a tendency throughout all the social sciences to downplay significant human differences. In this intellectual environment the idea that differences between languages could be deeply significant was seen as vaguely “racist,” 55 or at least incompatible with the hopes for international unity cherished by many intellectuals.

During the 1970’s there began a rapid expansion of linguistics as scholars branched out into different specialties, often in interdisciplinary studies which brought linguistic theories to bear upon issues in other social sciences and in the humanities. Scholars specialized in psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, ethnolinguistics, literary linguistics, and many other specialities. This development may be seen as a vindication of Sapir’s view that the study of language could not be separated from other fields. And it is no accident that linguists who branched out into these other departments continued to be attracted to Sapir’s views of the close relationship of language to thought and culture. In these specialties the study of language was not abstract, and the abstractions of universalistic theories of language were not so appealing.

In the field of psycholinguistics during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s we may use the introductory textbook Psychology and Language by Herbert and Eva Clark (1977) as representative. This is the textbook used in the course on psycholinguistics that I took as an undergraduate in 1983. The chapter on “Language and Thought” begins with the observation, “Language does not exist in a vacuum. It serves and is molded by other systems in the human mind. Because it is used for conveying ideas, its structure and function must reflect these ideas... Because it is used for communication within a complex social and cultural system, its structure and function are molded by these forces as well. Yet once people have learned how to use language, it wields a power of its own. It aids them in thinking about some ideas and hinders them in thinking about others. It molds many aspects of their daily affairs.” 56 The authors go on to present a balanced view of the question in which they conclude that different features of language do have significant effects upon cognitive differentiation, memory, and problem solving. Concerning the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” (a term which they apparently restrict to the strongest form of the hypothesis) they say that “at present, very little” can be concluded about its validity. 57 This is hardly in keeping with the idea promoted by Chomskyan linguists that the concept of linguistic relativity is an eccentric and discredited idea.

Since the early 1990’s there has been a new surge of interest in linguistic relativity, and research conducted by John A. Lucy at the University of Chicago 58 and by Stephen C. Levinson at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands 59 has given additional scientific support to the concept. Lucy showed that as a consequence of peculiarities of one Mayan language in South America its speakers consistently categorized objects according to the material of which they were made, while English-speaking people categorized the same objects according to shape. Levinson showed that speakers of another Mayan language in Mexico remembered the arrangement of objects differently from Dutch-speakers because of differences of language. These studies were designed and conducted according to rigorous scientific methods. It is fair to say that the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” has never been disproved by the Chomskyan linguists. Rather, it had simply evaporated as an object of serious study among those linguists who were intent upon developing the universalistic implications of Chomsky’s theories.

At the present time there seems to be broad agreement among linguists that language does influence thought in various ways, though not as strongly as Whorf’s statement of the hypothesis quoted above would seem to imply. It is obvious that at least some of us are capable of thinking “outside the box” of language when we make a conscious effort. We are capable of inventing new nouns and verbs to express ourselves if need be. So linguistic determinism must be rejected. But if it is merely a question of whether or not language influences thought, especially in realms such as philosophy and religion, where the mind contemplates abstractions or intangible and unseen realities, probably very few linguists would care to deny that language plays a very important role. Unfortunately, distinctions like this are too often neglected when this issue is discussed at a popular level. For example, Steven Pinker, who may be taken as a representative of those linguists of the “Chomskyan” school who are broadly opposed to the “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis, has written in a recent book that “there is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking.” 60 Of course this raises the question of what Pinker may mean by “dramatically,” but in any case, Pinker’s views are much closer to Whorf’s than readers might suppose from his treatment of the matter in The Language Instinct, because in another place he has written that Whorf was “probably correct” in the sense that “one’s language does determine how one must conceptualize reality when one has to talk about it.” 61 Laymen who are trying to gain an impression of the consensus among prominent linguists on a complex issue like this without a thorough study of the literature are liable to misunderstand them. The views of scholars are often more nuanced than one might suppose after reading a popular-level article or two.

This essay has already exceeded its appropriate length. In another essay I intend to show some practical implications of linguistic relativity for Bible translation and exegesis, which is my main interest in this subject. What I wish to be seen and acknowledged right now, however, is the complete legitimacy of the idea that various features of language influence our thinking. In this essay I have pointed to leading scholars from England, Scotland, Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and America. They include philosophers, theologians, literary critics, poets, and scientists. Among the scientists are major figures from the fields of chemistry, physics, anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. Some of them are respected scholars of the present day. On the other side of the question are the Chomskyan linguists who have lately flourished in America, who tend to minimize but not altogether deny the effects of language upon thought.

Michael Marlowe
April 2004, revised July 2011

1. Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), p. 63. Carson quotes Louw, Semantics of New Testament Greek, p. 45.

2. ibid., p. 44.

3. Sophist § 263. Ξένος: οὐκοῦν διάνοια μὲν καὶ λόγος ταὐτόν: πλὴν ὁ μὲν ἐντὸς τῆς ψυχῆς πρὸς αὑτὴν διάλογος ἄνευ φωνῆς γιγνόμενος τοῦτ᾽ αὐτὸ ἡμῖν ἐπωνομάσθη, διάνοια; Likewise in Theaetetus he defines thought as “the talk which the soul has with itself.” (§ 189. λόγον ὃν αὐτὴ πρὸς αὑτὴν ἡ ψυχὴ διεξέρχεται περὶ ὧν ἂν σκοπῇ).

4. Philebus, § 39. ἡ μνήμη ταῖς αἰσθήσεσι συμπίπτουσα εἰς ταὐτὸν κἀκεῖνα ἃ περὶ ταῦτ᾽ ἐστὶ τὰ παθήματα φαίνονταί μοι σχεδὸν οἷον γράφειν ἡμῶν ἐν ταῖς ψυχαῖς τότε λόγους: καὶ ὅταν μὲν ἀληθῆ γράφῃ [τοῦτο τὸ πάθημα], δόξα τε ἀληθὴς καὶ λόγοι ἀπ᾽ αὐτοῦ συμβαίνουσιν ἀληθεῖς ἐν ἡμῖν γιγνόμενοι: ψευδῆ δ᾽ ὅταν ὁ τοιοῦτος παρ᾽ ἡμῖν γραμματεὺς γράψῃ, τἀναντία τοῖς ἀληθέσιν ἀπέβη. “Memory unites with the senses, and they and the feelings which are connected with them seem to me almost to write words in our souls; and when the feeling in question writes the truth, true opinions and true statements are produced in us; but when the writer within us writes falsehoods, the resulting opinions and statements are the opposite of true.”

5. Cf. Frederick J. Church, The Trial and Death of Socrates, being the Euthyphron, Apology, Crito and Phædo of Plato, translated into English by F. J. Church (London: Macmillan & Co., 1880), Introduction, pp. xli. ff. The Greek is, το μη καλως λεγειν ου μονον εις αυτο τουτο πλημμελες, αλλα και κακον τι εμποιει ταις ψυχαις.

6. Chap. 7, Greek text according to Edward Poste, Aristotle On Fallacies, or the Sophistici Elenchi, with Translation and Notes (London: Macmillan, 1866), who follows the text of Bekker. The relevance of Aristotle’s statements to modern “speculations with respect to language, considered as an instrument of thought,” was noticed by Dugald Stewart in the second volume of his Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, published in 1814. Cf. vol. 2 of The Works of Dugald Stewart, in Seven Volumes (Cambridge: Hilliard and Brown, 1829), p. 92.

7. See, for example, the extensive treatment of fallacies in P. Coffey’s The Science of Logic, vol. 2 (New York: Peter Smith, 1938), pp. 298ff. Coffey warns that the ambiguity of words is a “fertile source of of very serious and elusive errors” in argumentation. “In the course of any sustained argument, after the manner of the sorites, it may easily lurk unsuspected, owing to the almost imperceptible differences in the varying shades of meaning which may attach to the same term in different contexts. Language is not a perfect instrument of thought.” (p. 304).

8. I quote from chapter 5 of the English translation of Against Praxeas by Peter Holmes, published in The Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, vol. XV, The Writings of Tertullian, vol II (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1870). The original Latin, acording to the edition of Evans (London, 1948) is as follows: Quodcunque cogitaveris sermo est, quodcunque senseris ratio est: loquaris illud in animo necesse est, et dum loqueris conlocutorem pateris sermonem, in quo inest haec ipsa ratio qua cum eo cogitans loquaris per quem loquens cogitas. Ita secundus quodammodo in te est sermo per quem loqueris cogitando et per quem cogitas loquendo.

9. These terms are mostly borrowed from the Latin Vulgate. Thus E.P. Barrows calls the Latin version “the great storehouse of theological terms for both Catholic and Protestant Christianity.” (Elijah P. Barrows, Companion to the Bible [American Tract Society, 1869], p. 400.)

10. English translation from Novum Organum, translated by Basil Montague (Philadelphia: Parry & MacMillan, 1854), aphorisms 43 and 59.

11. An Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, being a Supplement to Mr. Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding. Translated from the French of the Abbè de Condillac, member of the Royal Academy of Berlin, by Mr. Nugent. London: J. Nourse, 1756. The original French is as follows:

Si l’on se rappelle que l’exercice de l’imagination et de la mémoire dépend entièrement de la liaison des idées, et que celle-ci est formée par le rapport et l’analogie des signes ; on reconnoîtra que moins une langue a de tours analogues, moins elle prête de secours à la mémoire et à l’imagination. Elle est donc peu propre à développer les talens. Il en est des langues comme des chiffres des géométres : elles donnent de nouvelles vûes, et étendent l’esprit à proportion qu’elles sont plus parfaites.... Le succès des génies les mieux organisés dépend tout-à-fait des progrès du langage pour le siècle où ils vivent ; car les mots répondent aux signes des géométres, et la manière de les employer répond aux méthodes de calcul. On doit donc trouver dans une langue qui manque de mots, ou qui n’a pas des constructions assez commodes, les mêmes obstacles qu’on trouvoit en géométrie avant l’invention de l’algebre. (§147)

Peut-être m’objectera-t-on que des hommes tels que ce grand poëte, devoient trouver dans les langues savantes les secours que la langue vulgaire leur refusoit. Je réponds qu’accoutumés à concevoir les choses de la même manière qu’elles étoient exprimées dans la langue qu’ils avoient apprise en naissant, leur esprit étoit naturellement retréci. Le peu de précision et d’exactitude ne pouvoit les choquer, parce qu’ils s’en étoient fait une habitude. Ils n’étoient donc pas encore capables de saisir tous les avantages des langues savantes. (§148)

Si la langue de ces peuples grossiers est un obstacle aux progrès de l’esprit, donnons-lui un dégré de perfection, donnons-lui-en deux, trois, quatre ; l’obstacle subsistera encore, et ne peut diminuer qu’à proportion des dégrés qui auront été ajoutés. Il ne sera donc entièrement levé, que quand cette langue aura acquis à peu près autant de dégrés de perfection, que la nôtre en avoit, quand elle a commencé à former de bons écrivains. Il est, par conséquent, démontré que les nations ne peuvent avoir des génies supérieurs, qu’après que les langues ont déja fait des progrès considérables. (§150)

Je ne doute pas que je ne sois contredit sur ce que j’ai avancé touchant le caractère des langues. J’ai souvent rencontré des personnes qui croyent toutes les langues également propres pour tous les genres, et qui prétendent qu’un homme organisé comme Corneille, dans quelque siècle qu’il eut vêcu, et dans quelque idiôme qu’il eut écrit, eut donné les mêmes preuves de talens. Les signes sont arbitraires la première fois qu’on les employe ; c’est peut-être ce qui a fait croire qu’ils ne sauroient avoir de caractère. Mais je demande s’il n’est pas naturel à chaque nation de combiner ses idées selon le génie qui lui est propre ; et de joindre à un certain fonds d’idées principales, différentes idées accessoires, selon qu’elle est différemment affectée. Or ces combinaisons autorisés par un long usage, sont proprement ce qui constitue le génie d’une langue. Il peut être plus ou moins étendu : cela dépend du nombre et de la variété des tours reçus, et de l’analogie, qui au besoin fournit les moyens d’en inventer. Il n’est point au pouvoir d’un homme de changer entièrement ce caractère. Aussi-tôt qu’on s’en écarte, on parle un langage étranger, et on cesse d’être entendu. C’est au tems à amener des changemens aussi considérables, en plaçant tout un peuple dans des circonstances qui l’engagent à envisager les choses tout autrement qu’il ne faisoit. (§160)

12. In Herders Sämmtliche Werke edited by Bernhard Suphan in 33 vols. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1877-1913), Herder’s Über den Fleiß in mehreren gelehrten Sprachen is reprinted in two forms. In volume 1 (p. 6) we read: “Denn in welchem genauen Bande steht Sprache und Denkungsart? Wer den Umfang einer Sprache übersieht: überschaut ein Feld voll Gedanken, und wer sie genau ausdrücken lernt: sammlet sich eben hiemit einen Schatz bestimmter Begriffe. Die ersten Wörter, die wir lallen, sind die Grundsteine unserer Erkenntniß, und die Wärterinnen unsre erste Lehrer der Logik.” In volume 30 (p. 12) a revised version reads: “Denn in welchem genauen Bande steht Sprache und Denkungsart? Wer den ganzen Umfang einer Sprache übersieht, überschaut ein Feld voll Gedanken, und wer sich genau ausdrucken lernt, sammlet sich eben hiemit einen Schatz bestimmter Begriffe. Die ersten Wörter, die wir lallen, sind die wichtigsten Grundsteine des Verstandes, und unsre Wärterinnen sind unsre erste Lehrer der Logik.” The latter version is the basis of the English translation presented here.

13. The “Fragments” Über die neuere deutsche Literatur are reprinted in volume 2 of Herders Sämmtliche Werke edited by Bernhard Suphan (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1877). The German reads: “Sie ist noch mehr als dies: die Form der Wissenschaften, nicht blos in welcher, sondern auch nach welcher sich die Gedanken gestalten: wo in allen Theilen der Litteratur Gedanke am Ausdrucke klebt, und sich nach demselben bildet. Ich sage in allen Theilen der Litteratur: denn wenn man glaubt, daß blos in der Critik der schönen Wissenschaften, in Poesie und Rednerkunst, vieles vom Ausdrucke abhängt: so setzt man dieser Verbindung zu enge Gränzen. In der Erziehung lernen wir Gedanken durch Worte, und die Wärterinnen, die unsere Zunge bilden, sind also unsere erste Lehrerinnen der Logik: bei allen sinnlichen Begriffen in der ganzen Sprache des gemeinen Lebens klebt der Gedanke am Ausdruck: in der Sprache des Dichters, er spreche Empfindungen oder Bilder, belebt der Gedanke die Sprache, so wie die Seele den Körper: die ganze anschauende Erkenntniß verbindet die Sache mit dem Namen: alle Worterklärungen der Weltweisheit genügen sich am letzten — und in allen Wissenschaften hat es gute oder böse Folgen gegeben, daß man mit Worten, und oft nach Worten gedacht hat. Da ich im dritten Theile meines Buchs eine fragmentarische Abhandlung darüber gebe: wie der Gedanke am Ausdrucke klebe? so fahre ich hier blos im allgemeinen Tone fort. Ists wahr, daß wir ohne Gedanken nicht denken können, und durch Worte denken lernen: so giebt die Sprache der ganzen Menschlichen Erkenntniß Schranken und Umriß.” (pp. 16-17.) Translation from Michael N. Forster, “Herder’s Philosophy of Language, Interpretation, and Translation: Three Fundamental Principles,” The Review of Metaphysics 56 (December 2002). For English translation of relevant texts see Johann Gottfried Herder: Selected Early Works, 1764-7, edited by Ernest A. Menze and Karl Menges (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1992), and Herder: Philosophical Writings, edited and translated by Michael N. Forster (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Forster’s article on Herder in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a very helpful summary of Herder’s philosophy of language.

14. Johann Gottfried von Herder, Vom Geist der Ebräischen Poesie. Eine Anleitung für die Liebhaber derselben, und der ältesten Geschichte des menschlichen Geistes. 2 vols., 1782, 83. An English translation by James Marsh was published as The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, 2 vols. (Burlington: Edward Smith, 1833), and reprinted in 1971 by Aleph Press in Naperville, Illinois as no. 2 in the series Sources in the History of Interpretation.

15. “A Dissertation Concerning the Influence of Language on Opinions and of Opinions on Language,” dated May 1788, in A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings on Moral, Historical, Political and Literary Subjects (Boston: I. Thomas and E.T. Andrews, 1790), pp. 224-25.

16. Elements of Chemistry, translated by Robert Kerr (Edinburgh, 1790), pp. xiii, xxxvii.

17. Cf. volume 2 of The Works of Dugald Stewart in Seven Volumes (Cambridge, 1829), pp. 91-98.

18. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, edited by Alexander Grosart, vol. 2 (London: Edward Moxon & Son, 1876), pp. 64-65. Wordsworth’s sentence about “possessed vestments read of in the stories of superstitious times” refers to the “poisoned garment” motif in ancient Greek legends, familiar to educated men in Wordsworth’s time. In the legends, Medea kills a love-rival by sending her a poisoned wedding garment which burns her to death, the centaur Nessus tricks Deianira into giving a flesh-burning garment to Hercules, and the god Hephaestus sends to Harmonia “a robe dyed in all sorts of crimes, which infused wickedness and impiety into all her offspring” (Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable).

19. Friedrich Schleiermacher, “On the Different Methods of Translating,” translated by Waltraud Bartscht, in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, edited by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 38. The original, published as “Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens,” and reprinted in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s sämmtliche Werke, Dritte Abtheilung: Zur Philosophie, Vol. 2 (Berlin: Reimer, 1838), pp. 207-245, reads thus: “Jeder Mensch ist auf der einen Seite in der Gewalt der Sprache, die er redet; er und sein ganzes Denken ist ein Erzeugniß derselben. Er kann nichts mit völliger Bestimmtheit denken, was außerhalb der Grenzen derselben läge; die Gestalt seiner Begriffe, die Art und die Grenzen ihrer Verknüpfbarkeit ist ihm vorgezeichnet durch die Sprache, in der er geboren und erzogen ist; Verstand und Fantasie sind durch sie gebunden. Auf der andern Seite aber bildet jeder freidenkende geistig selbstthätige Mensch auch seinerseits die Sprache. Denn wie anders als durch diese Einwirkungen wäre sie geworden und gewachsen von ihrem ersten rohen Zustande zu der vollkommneren Ausbildung in Wissenschaft und Kunst?” (p. 213). The theoretical consequence for translation work is, “Entweder der Übersetzer läßt den Schriftsteller möglichst in Ruhe, und bewegt den Leser ihm entgegen; oder er läßt den Leser möglichst in Ruhe und bewegt den Schriftsteller ihm entgegen.” “The translator may either leave the author mostly in peace, and push the reader towards him; or he may leave the reader mostly in peace and push the author towards him.” (p. 218).

20. As quoted by Henry N. Day in The Art of Discourse (New York: Charles Scribner and Co., 1867), p. 213. The paragraph in the original German reads: “Die Sprache ist kein bloßes Mittel, um Gedanken zu bezeichnen. Ein solches äußeres Mittel ist undenkbar; und von Ersindung der Sprache im gewöhnlichen Sinne kann daher nicht die Rede sein. Der Ursprung der Sprache ist mit dem Ursprung des Denkens Eins, welches in der Wirklichkeit ohne Sprache nicht möglich ist. Das Denken ist ein subjectives Sprechen, wie das Sprechen ein objectives Denken, die äußere Erscheinung des Denkens selbst. Keines von beiden ist ohne das andere möglich und beide bedingen einander gegenseitig. — Da die Poesie nur Thätigkeit der Idee und auch in ihrer äußeren Erscheinung in der Sprache Thätigkeit ist, so wird sie nie abgeschlossene Gegenstände, sondern immer nur Thätigkeit darstellen können.” K. W. F. Solger’s Vorlesungen über Aesthetik, herausgegeben von K.W.L. Heyse (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1829), p. 260.

21. For a brief account of the formation of the British mission societies and their early work see Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953), pp. 1032-5.

22. Biographia Literaria, vol. I, chapter 17, emphasis added. In the reprint published in New York by the American Book Exchange (1881), the words are found on page 486.

23. Alexander Campbell, “The Trinitarian System,” The Christian Baptist, vol. 4, no. 10 (May 1827), pp. 232-3.

24. Johann Adam Hartung, Lehre von den Partikeln der griechischen Sprache, vol. 1 (Erlangen: Joh. Jac. Palm & Ernst Enke, 1832), § 1, as translated by William G.T. Shedd, “The Relation of Language to Thought,” Bibliotheca Sacra 5 (Nov 1848), pp. 650-651 (reprinted in Discourses and Essays [Andover: W.F. Draper, 1856], p. 181).

25. Wilhelm Von Humboldt, Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluß auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts. Berlin: Druckerei der Könglichen Akademie, 1836. An English translation of the work is On Language: The Diversity of Human Language and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind, translated by Peter Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), recently reprinted as On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species (1999).

26. Leonard Bloomfield, Language (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1933), p. 18.

27. Humboldt’s German is difficult to translate. By “lives” here he means “experiences life” and by “objects” he means items of objective reality or noumena in the Kantian sense. The sentence in the original German reads as follows: Der Mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja, da Empfinden und Handlen in ihm von seinen Vorstellungen abhängen, sogar ausschließlich so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zuführt. Durch denselben Akt, vermöge dessen er die Sprache aus sich herausspinnt, spinnt er sich in dieselbe ein, und jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis, aus dem es nur insofern hinauszugehen möglich ist, als man zugleich in den Kreis einer andren hinübertritt.

28. Robert H. Robins, A Short History of Linguistics. 4th Edition. (London and New York: Longman, 1997), p. 166.

29. John W. Donaldson, The New Cratylus; or, Contributions towards a More Accurate Knowledge of the Greek Language (London: John W. Parker, 1839), p. 46. Donaldson’s remarks on this subject were later cited by another prominent scholar, B.F. Westcott, who wrote, “The slightest consideration will show that words are as essential to intellectual processes as they are to mutual intercourse. For man the purely spiritual and absolute is but an aspiration or a dream. Thoughts are wedded to words as necessarily as soul to body. Language is a condition of our being, determining the conception as well as the communication of ideas, as in the first record of our race we read that Adam, while still in solitude, gave names to all the creatures which passed before him. Without it the mysteries unveiled before the eyes of the seer would be confused shadows; with it they are made clear lessons for human life.” (Brooke Foss Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, 5th ed [London: Macmillan, 1875], p. 14).

30. John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, 2 vols. (London: John W. Parker, 1843). For the discussion of language see especially Book 4, chapters 3-6. For quotations and page numbers I have used the one-volume edition published in 1858 by Harper & Brothers, New York.

31. “Man erlernt also nicht bloß Worte, sondern erwirbt Begriffe.... man in jeder Sprache anders denkt.” See Arthur Schopenhauer’s sämmtliche Werke, herausgegeben von Julius Frauenstädt, Zweite Auflage, Sechster Band (Leipzig: Brodhaus, 1877), pp. 603-4. The German text of pp. 602-605 with English translation is available online here.

32. Richard Chevenix Trench, On the Study of Words: Lectures Addressed (Originally) to the Pupils at The Diocesan Training-school, Winchester. London: Macmillan, 1851. I have used a copy of the sixth edition (London: John W. Parker and Sons, 1855) for quotations and page numbers.

33. William G.T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1865), pp. 362-3. Shedd gives the following note on his quotation of Whewell: “History of Inductive Sciences (Introduction). ‘Die Zierde,—und das äussere Merkmal,—einer endlich auf sichern Grund erbauten Wissenschaft, ist und bleibt doch eine bestimmte Terminologie.’ Schelling, Idealismus der Wissenschaftslehre (Phil. Schriften, 205).”

34. JohnA. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (2nd ed., Philadelphia, 1871), p. 321. Here we might also notice another American author, to whom Broadus refers. Henry N. Day in his The Art of Discourse (New York, 1867) writes: “Language is not, as sometimes represented in loose expression, the mere dress of thought. It has a vital connection with thought; and is far more truly and appropriately conceived of as the living, organic body of thought, interpenetrated throughout with the vitality of the thought, as the natural body with the life of the spirit, having living connections between its parts giving it unity and making it a whole, than as a mere dress having no relation to thought and no organic dependence in its parts.” (p. 213.)

35. Charles Darwin, On the Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, vol. 1 (London: Murray, 1871), p. 57.

36. Charles Augustus Briggs, Biblical Study: Its Principles, Methods, and History, Together with a Catalogue of Books of Reference (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883, 2nd ed., 1884), pp. 42-5.

37. William James, Principles of Psychology, reprinted in volume 53 of Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1953), pp. 127-128.

38. ibid., p. 333.

39. ibid., p. 650.

40. Franz Boas, “Introduction” in Handbook of American Indian Languages, vol. 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911), pp. 71-2. See the helpful discussion of Boas’s views in John A. Lucy, Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (Cambridge: University Press, 1992), pp. 14-15.

41. Before “linguistics” had become an academic discipline sharply separated from other related fields, the word “philology” was commonly used for linguistic scholarship. Scholars who occupied themselves in such study were called “philologists.” Today the word “philology” continues to be used in a more special sense, in reference to the historical study of language as it is used in texts, especially ancient and medieval texts which require a good deal of historical and cultural knowledge to be properly understood. “Philology” therefore involves an immersion in the foreign cultural context, and not some abstract or merely theoretical study of language in general. Eugene Nida draws the distinction thus: “Philology, in the more generally accepted use of this term, tends to focus attention primarily upon particular texts and documents, usually of literary value; and from the perspective of historical development it treats the vocabulary, discourse structure, themes, and motifs, principally from the standpoint of their content. In contrast to this philological approach, linguistics is concerned with the structure of language, not as used in particular texts, but as illustrative of what can be and is used in all types of verbal communication. For the linguist all texts in a language are of interest, including those of literary value, but his concern is not so much with the contents of such texts as with their formal stuctures.” (Eugene A. Nida, “Implications of Contemporary Linguistics for Biblical Scholarship,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91/1 [March 1972], pp. 73-4.)

42. Edward Sapir, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1921), chapter 1.

43. “The Status of Linguistics as a Science,” Language 5 (1929), pp. 207-214. See also his earlier essay “The Grammarian and his Language,” American Mercury 1 (1924), pp. 149-155. Both are reprinted in Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality, ed. David G. Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949 [reprinted 1986]).

44. Werner Heisenberg, Die physikalischen Prinzipien der Quantentheorie (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1930) translated into English by Carl Eckart and Frank C. Hoyt in The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930), pp. 10-11.

45. James Jeans, Physics and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943), p. 86.

46. “La Miseria y el esplendor de la traducción,” La Nación (Buenos Aires), May-June 1937. Reprinted in José Ortega y Gasset, Obras Completas: Tomo V (1933-1941) (Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1947), pp. 429-48.

47. “Science and Linguistics,” Technology Review 42 (1940): 229-31, 247-8. Reprinted in Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. J. B. Carroll (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1956) pp. 212-14, 221.

48. William Chomsky, Hebrew: the Eternal Language (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1957), p.3.

49. Eugene A. Nida, “Analysis of Meaning and Dictionary Making,” International Journal of American Linguistics 24/4 (October 1958), pp. 279-292; reprinted in Language Structure and Translation: Essays by Eugene A. Nida, Selected and Introduced by Anwar S. Dil (Stanford University Press, 1975), p. 6.

50. Eugene A. Nida, “Sociolinguistics and Translating,” in Sociolinguistics and Communication (ed. Johannes P. Louw; UBS Monograph Series 1; London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1986), p. 11. Despite Nida’s recognition of the elusiveness and instability of the “meaning” of words and the great difficulties faced by translators who are trying to transfer it from one language to another, which he emphasizes in several of his books, on the theoretical level he always seems to fall back on his principle, “Anything that can be said in one language can be said in another” (The Theory and Practice of Translation [Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1969], p. 4). But the truth is, this often-quoted statement has no more substance than a motivational slogan in Nida’s writings. He makes no attempt to prove it, or even to defend it; he sets it forth in a very arbitrary manner, as if it were unquestionable. The statement therefore has no value as a descriptive statement of fact. One would think that after spending so many years supervising attempts to transfer a corpus of ancient near-eastern poetry (the Psalms), among other exquisite literary works written by men of advanced religious culture, into the exotic and primitive languages of African tribes, he would be ready to admit that the experience of translators does not wholly support his contention. But evidently in this matter faith triumphs over experience.

51. Simeon Potter, Language in the Modern World (Penguin Books, 1960), pp. 19-20. Esparanto is an artificial language invented by a Polish Jew named Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), combining elements of Latin, French, German, and English. Zamenhof hoped that it would supplant ethnic languages and eventually become the international language of mankind. On some occasions it has been used as a bridge-language at international gatherings.

52. ibid, p. 173.

53. Leonard Bloomfield, Language (New York: Henry Holt, 1933), p. 22.

54. Chomsky’s theories were published in his Syntactic Structures (1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965).

55. On the charge of “racism” see Wolfram Wilss, The Science of Translation: Problems and Methods (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1982), p. 46. But the illogic of this charge is striking when one considers the fact that the whole point of the theory of linguistic relativity is to show how thinking is shaped by the linguistic environment, not innate racial capacities or differences. The anti-racist implications of the concept were the main reason that Franz Boas took an interest in it. But in our generation the bugaboo of “racism” has been responsible for the suppression of all sorts of scientific research into human differences, whether innate or acquired. Strangely enough, with the recent rise of “multiculturalism” in the academic world it has now become fashionable to characterize as racist the denial of significant differences between peoples. In linguistics this was illustrated in the recent controversy about “ebonics” (Black English). In 1996 the School Board in Oakland, California adopted a controversial resolution declaring that the language used by inner-city blacks was “genetically based” and was not a dialect of English but an African creole which should be treated as a separate language under bilingual education programs. Despite the outlandish nature of these claims, in the midst of the ensuing controversy the American Linguistic Society adopted a resolution in support of the School Board. Without taking a position on specific claims made in the School Board’s resolution, the linguists expressed their support by citing the “scientific and human advantages to linguistic diversity.” For educational problems associated with Black English see Eleanor Wilson Orr, Twice As Less: Black English and the Performance of Black Students in Mathematics and Science. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987, reissued with a new introduction in 1997). After an extensive study of Black English in an educational setting Orr concludes that the simplified grammar of Black English prevented students from grasping key concepts in math and science. This of course must be denied by linguists who want to be politically correct. Political correctness requires them to espouse the patently unreasonable opinion that all natural languages and dialects are equally fit vehicles for any kind of learning. Concerning the political dimension of the Oakland controversy one linguist, John Holm, has observed, “linguistics is a social science, and linguists take pride in thinking of themselves as scientists, with all the objectivity that word denotes. Unfortunately, objectivity is very hard to achieve, especially in the social sciences, and linguistics is no exception.” (Languages in Contact [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004], p. 1)

56. Herbert H. Clark and Eva V. Clark, Psychology and Language: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), p. 515.

57. ibid., p. 557.

58. See John A. Lucy, Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. (Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language, No. 12). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992; Grammatical Categories and Cognition: A Case Study of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language, No. 13). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

59. See Stephen C. Levinson and J.J. Gumperz, eds., Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Also helpful on the current state of research is the collection of articles in Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought, edited by Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow (MIT Press, 2003). The contributors include Melissa Bowerman, Eve Clark, Jill de Villiers, Peter de Villiers, Giyoo Hatano, Stan Kuczaj, Barbara Landau, Stephen Levinson, John Lucy, Barbara Malt, Dan Slobin, Steven Sloman, Elizabeth Spelke, and Michael Tomasello.

60. Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (1994), p. 58.

61. Steven Pinker, Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1989), p. 360. For this citation I am endebted to Daniel Slobin, “Language and Thought Online: Cognitive Consequences of Linguistic Relativity,” in Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003).