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What Is Linguistic Relativity?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 16 September 2014
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Linguistic relativity is a somewhat scientific term for the ways that humans use language. This idea theorizes that language controls the thought processes of those who use it in certain powerful ways. This concept is used extensively in linguistics and related fields as part of examining the role of language in cognitive function.

Within the general concept of linguistic relativity, there are two main schools of thought. One is a version of relativity in which language is a dominant force on the ways that people perceive and think about the world at large. A different kind of relatively for linguistics posits less of a dominant impact by language on its users.

Although experts see linguistic relativity as going back to the nineteenth century, many see its real emergence in the twentieth century. Some refer to this principle as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, after the social scientists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The scientific community has reacted in different ways to this work as the broad idea of linguistic relativity receives very different treatments from different scientists and linguists who study the impact of language.

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At its most basic level, linguistic relativity can be explained in a similar way as relativity in physics. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity can be seen as a metaphor where each person or sentient being holds their own clock, and each clock has its own way of telling time. In linguistic relativity, each person has his or her own internal associations for language, and this collection of associations frames the ways that the individual perceives the environment around him or her. When academics study this kind of relativity, they are often trying to identify the specific ways that language works on human thought, in order to understand individual or mass psychology for a range of research applications. The pursuit of research in this type of linguistics often involves the study of semiotics, which is the study of symbols and their impact on thought.

Although relativity in linguistics is a very broad term, scientists have pursued much more specific research using this idea in precise ways. Contemporary linguistic scientists have often questioned the strength of the idea that language actually determines how people classify objects or other kinds of profound thought processes. An alternative view is that universal factors are at work, and that language is only a secondary power in directing our most important types of references. Others would even posit the reverse, that the features of a language are in fact determined by the collective experience of a particular society or culture.

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