As Edward Sapir first approached the field of linguistics in the course of his anthropologist studies, his view on language is one that takes into account not only cultural studies but the whole range of human sciences, among them psychology, sociology, and philosophy. He treats language as a cultural product and considers linguistics to be a fruitful possibility of a scientific study of society. In this paper I want to give an overview on his inquiries into the function and form of languages as arbitrary systems of symbolisms. Beginning with Sapir’s definition and characterization of language I want to carve out the function of language structure in connection with language change, its impact on world view, and finally Sapir’s conclusions concerning an artificial international language.
Sapir characterizes language as purely human and non-instinctive, consisting of a conventional system of arbitrary sound symbols that are produced voluntarily. Therefore not only communication systems of animals are excluded from his definition of language but also any human articulation that is not symbolic or voluntary, e.g., instinctive cries. A speech element can symbolize either a concept or relations within and between concepts. A concept is the abstracted sum of numerous individual experiences that are perceived as similar or even identical in their basic properties. For example, if we hear the word “house” we might have in mind a certain prototype, e.g., four stone walls, a wooden door, glass windows, and a tiled roof, but we do not think of a certain house we once saw, because “house” is a symbol for a concept, a category, consisting of very few basics: walls and a roof, suitable for people to live in. The same applies to abstract things like ideas, sensations, and emotions. As Sapir writes:
‘The world of our experiences must be enormously simplified and generalized before it is possible to make a symbolic inventory of all our experiences of things and relations and this inventory is imperative before we can convey ideas’ (Sapir 1921, 12).
And this is what language does for us. It conceptualizes our world and provides for us the categories we think in. As each language has a different structure, each language dictates its own classification of the world around. The differences can be anything from marginal to fundamental. Benjamin Whorf, a student of Sapir, compares the treatment of time and space in the Hopi language with its treatment in what he calls SAE (Standard Average European) languages. The SAE languages objectify time and space in the sense that they allow counting and measuring them while in Hopi ‘There is no objectification, as a region, an extent, a quantity, of the subjective duration-feeling. Nothing is suggested about time except the perpetual ‘getting later’ of it’ (Worf 1956:143) But we don’t even have to look at such abstract conceptions to realize that different linguistic categories are responsible for different perceptions of the world. If we take a simple term like chair and its German translation Stuhl and compare the concepts that are triggered off by them, we will find, that chair does not cover the same group of items as Stuhl. What is perceived as similar or identical in one language because it is called the same is perceived different in the other, because it is referred to by different terms. Each language has its own way of classifying reality and dividing the world into different categories. But the important thing is that
‘All languages are set to do all the symbolic and expressive work that language is good for, either actually or potentially. The formal technique of this work is the secret of each language’ (Sapir 1949:155)
If the Hopi do not think of time and space as countable and measurable, because their language does not treat these issues that way, that does not mean they cannot express the SAE concept of time and space in their own language and the other way round. Every language enables its speakers to express whatever they want to express, only the technical means are different. This is what Sapir calls the ‘formal completeness’ of each language. This completeness has nothing to do with the richness of the vocabulary but with the formal, the structural, properties of the language. He denies the traditional ranking of languages that used to put Old Greek and Latin on top of the scale of completeness and languages of primitive peoples on the bottom. For Sapir, there is no hierarchy of completeness, but every language is in itself complete and sufficient to express everything its speakers want to express. It is a mistake to try and measure one language with the structural frame of another, because every language has its very own, complete, structure.