The Relativity Principle in Language

Wilhelm von Humboldt and Leo Weisgerber

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 19 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. Wilhelm von Humboldt
2.1. Humboldt’s Linguistic Relativity Theory
2.2. The Purport of Language
2.3. The Basis of Humboldt’s Linguistic Doctrines
2.4. The Process of Linguistic Determination
2.5. The Influence of Variation among Languages on Thought
2.6. Aspects Determining the Designation of Language
2.6.1. Lexical Designation
2.6.2. Grammatical Designation

3. Leo Weisgerber
3.1. The Relation of Language to Cognition
3.2. The Law of the Sign and the Law of the Field
3.3. The Theory of Grammar and the “Weltbild”
3.3.1. The Word Classes
3.3.2. The Sentence
3.3.3. The Capacity of Languages to Organize Thought

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

For hundreds of years scholars have been pondering on the interconnection of language and thought with in some points corresponding and in some points differing results. Two important protagonists in this discussion were Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) and Leo Weisgerber (1899-1985), whose positions to this question I am trying to set out in this paper. As the theme is very complex, I shall at least attempt to point out some aspects, which seem especially important to me. All the authors I consulted agree that Humboldt’s theory cannot be comprehended without considering the philosophical background. Not being a student of philosophy, conceiving this part of the paper was very difficult for me. I tried to do my best by picking out those aspects of his philosophical ideas which I thought indispensable for the understanding of his doctrines.

2. Wilhelm von Humboldt

Wilhelm Freiherr von Humboldt was a German statesman and philologist. During his time as Prussian minister of education (1809–10) he thoroughly reformed the school system, largely on the basis of the ideas of Pestalozzi, and he sent Prussian teachers to study the methods of Pestalozzi's school in Switzerland. In many of his works the connection between language and thought is the focus of interest. He remained prominent in the government until 1819, when he retired because of his opposition to the prevailing spirit of reaction. Yet, he was not inactive but turned to writing philosophical and philological essays, which wield a great influence on scholars even today[1]. For Humboldt the relationship between language and thought is primarily a philosophical problem, neither to be examined through the comparative investigation of different languages nor through psychological experiments. This necessitates giving a philosophical theory of what thought and language are (cf. Manchester 1985:148-149).

2.1. Humboldt’s Linguistic Relativity Theory

The philosophical foundation of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s linguistic relativity thesis is the hypothesis that the process of thinking organizes thought into meaningful units, also referred to as objects, which a subject makes use of. This process constitutes language in the broadest sense of the word. Consequently, as soon as an individual becomes aware of his/her self, the first act of reflection sets in and immediately produces language (cf. Böhler 1973:3).

It clothes impressions and sentiences in clear terms, which are then combined with each other to create new terms. Language therefore is the complement of thinking. But the problem is that language has to adapt to the nature of the world as well as to the nature of human beings, which are interconnected, and has to do justice to both of them (cf. Böhler 1973:8). Yet, the words of a language are neither the image of a thing nor a mere suggestion (cf. Böhler 1973:9). Consequently, the words of different languages cannot be complete synonyms (cf. Böhler 1973:11). Furthermore, language is infinite, and that is why it cannot be completely fathomed or completely depicted (cf. Böhler 1973:12). Language sets limits to the mind of the individual who speaks it because it fixes in advance how far in each direction an individual’s mind can move (cf. Böhler 1973:13).

2.2. The Purport of Language

Humboldt regards language as a product, but also as a process, the latter aspect being of more importance to him. That is why historical linguistics, though taken into consideration in his writings, is of secondary interest to him. He demands language to be examined at every single point of its development regardless of the historical dimensions. Humboldt accepts Kant’s theory of knowledge and applies the principles of Kant’s concept of objectivity to the problem of language (cf. Miller 1968:25).

For Humboldt language is a creative act of the mind, not the mere appending of words on ideas detached from these words, which enters into the cognitive process itself. This heuristic power of speech is very important for Humboldt because in this act of synthesis language becomes an object to the consciousness, and produces an effect on it. What happens is that thought (formless and struggling for clarity) becomes embodied in sound, and language is formed (cf. Miller 1968:26).

The process is the following: the mind gathers an advantage from the physical property of speech sounds, and through their mediacy the flux of experience becomes ordered and words are formed. The word then is the minimal unit capable of expressing the content of language. Language, however, must not be seen just as a “collection of words”, its most far-reaching characteristics are articulation and structure (Gliederung) (cf. Miller 1968:27). Articulation is defined as the process by which the formless thought-mass and the equally formless sound-mass meet and become ordered into the components of language. Structure adds clarity.

In consequence, language is not considered a mere piling up of discrete elements. This is in accordance with the Romantic concept of organism. When a speaker makes an utterance, the whole language is present to him (cf. Miller 1968:28). Because of this you have to examine the language as a whole, and not only the words in order to understand its structure.

Speech reveals its unity, which has been created by an act of synthesis in thought and affects language as a whole, in the sentence and not in the word. From this integration of thought and speech, language derives its inner form which organizes it into a systematic whole. According to Humboldt, grammar, phonology, and individual peculiarities of designation contained in the lexicon – which distinguish one language from the other - can be referred back to the operation of that language’s inner form, and the dynamics of a language’s inner form determines its peculiar world perspective. Humboldt stresses the fact that the synthetic act differs from language to language. Yet, he concludes that different inflected languages parallel the “natural” cognitive processes, which means that the differences show up among the various languages by the word’s capacity for designating concepts (cf. Miller 1968:29).

From these considerations he draws the important conclusion that man’s cognitive and sensory powers depend on the language he speaks. In Humboldt’s opinion words aid in the discovery of concepts not yet known, causing him to speak about “diversity of world perspectives”, thereby espousing a linguistic relativism (cf. Miller 1968: 31). While for him different linguistic structures are reflections of the varied mental characteristics of their speakers, differences in the world perspectives of languages are measured in terms of a language’s capacity for intuiting the “objective realm” (cf. Miller 1968:32).

Despite these differences Humboldt argues that there is a denominator, however insignificant, common to all languages. But it is seldom that one word in language A has an exact equivalent in language B. This only happens sometimes in the designation of physical objects and intellectual concepts (cf. Miller 1968:30).

Concluding you can say that Humboldt accepted the Kantian theory of epistemology. He says that the more immediate forms of experience are given to man through language, and that each language presents these forms in a different way. What is very important to Humboldt is that recognition is only possible through the word-sign formation in its function of meaning, and he claims that language is a system of such signs (cf. Miller 1968:33).

2.3. The Basis of Humboldt’s Linguistic Doctrines

There are two priority hypotheses with some subordinate theses assigned to each of them.

A. Thinking is dependent upon language in general (central claim).

- Words and syntax form and determine concepts on the one hand, and influence knowledge and sensation on the other.
- The particular language determines thinking in each individual case.
- A people thinks as it does “because it so speaks”.

Comment: This implies that every individual instance of thinking is determined by language (cf. Manchester 1985:150).

B. Each language represents, at a given time, the total conceptual knowledge which that speaking community has developed (“conceptual range”).

- It also represents the “total thought substance” of a nation.

Comment: Ideally, the speaker has access to the total conceptual content of his language. But this also implies that, as the total conceptual possibilities of a language are limited, it is necessary to the speaker of this language to think within these confines. In connection with these deliberations two questions remain, which are not fully answered: To which extent does proficiency in more than one language expand the conceptual material the speaker has at his/her disposal? And: Is creativity possible according to this intellectual framework? (cf. Manchester 1985:150)

In order to reach an approximate understanding of Humboldt’s linguistic relativity doctrines, not only the claims must be made clear. There are some expressions in his writings, closely connected to his claims, which have a very special meaning for him.

The first is “world view”, which signifies the total of all possible thought constituents the speaker has at his/her disposal, according to the Humboldtian system. H. Gripper emphasizes that this “world view” for Humboldt does not have the ideological implications which are often attributed to it (cf. 151). It is clearly distinguished from the “character” and the “inner form”. “Character” in Humboldt’s philosophical writings is the pervasive influence a guiding national mood or tendency has on the language, while “inner form” stands for the particular lexical and syntactic structure of a language (cf. Manchester 1985:148-152).

2.4. The Process of Linguistic Determination

In the development of consciousness out of the pre-articulated “thinking” (a level of awareness common to humans and animals) the initially chaotic manifold sensations and ideas are “articulated” into thought-units. This production of thought-units establishes a basis for the subject-object structure which defines consciousness as distinct from mere thinking. Language, according to Humboldt, is indispensable for the production of these thought-units (“concepts”) which are of various kind and complexity. Language is here used in the wider sense as all concepts designated by words, as the phonetic forms and the grammatical rules. Once “reflection” and “attention” set in, consciousness is attained, which forms or articulates concepts out of the various sensations, instincts and desires immanent in human thinking. These concepts are various, including simple ones and more complex ones, derived from the “simples”. While this stock of concepts is built up, the geographical and perceptual circumstances and the “character” of the nation influence the constitution of the concepts which, in turn, reflect the circumstances of their formation and the subsequent development. In consequence the language which is developed represents a national linguistic “world view” (cf.Manchester 1985:153-154). This implies that the manifold languages express varying world views, the world is not seen objectively but in perspective. Different nations have different characters, which leave their imprint on the formation of a language, which in turn determines the thought of the people who learn it. For instance a nation with a “sensual” character will develop its language in a certain way, and the effect of the character relates to the whole “form” of the language, including phonetic, syntactic and semantic structures. Subsequently the language will determine the thought of the people who learn it, inducing them to think in the “sensual” pattern which has gone into the production of the language (cf. Manchester 1985:144).

As a result, all users of any language are restricted to the use of the set meanings or, in defining new concepts, to working with them. Of course, personal concepts can change in the course of time, but some concepts must necessarily be used, and each of them is imbued with previous meanings and associations. Thus, in using language, we are always bound to some conceptual content and can never completely originate language (cf. Manchester 1985:154).


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relativity principle language wilhelm humboldt weisgerber




Title: The Relativity Principle in Language