Linguistic determinism is the idea that language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought, as well as thought processes such as categorization, memory, and perception. The term implies that people of different languages have different thought processes. Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed the idea Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world", "The subject does not belong to the world, but it is a limit of the world", and "About what one cannot speak, one must remain silent". This viewpoint forms part of the field of analytic philosophy.
Linguistic relativity (popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis) is a form of linguistic determinism which argues that individuals experience the world based on the structure of the language they habitually use. For example, studies have shown that people find it easier to recognise and remember shades of colours for which they have a specific name.
Role in literary theory
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Linguistic determinism is a partial assumption behind a number of recent[when?] developments in rhetoric and literary theory. For example, French philosopher Jacques Derrida's dissected the terms of "paradigmatic" hierarchies (in language structures, some words exist only with antonyms, such as light/dark, and others exist only with relation to other terms, such as father/son and mother/daughter; Derrida targeted the latter). He believed that if one breaks apart the hidden hierarchies in language terms, one can open up a "lacuna" in understanding, an "aporia," and free the mind of the reader/critic. Similarly, Michel Foucault's New Historicism theory posits that there is a quasi-linguistic structure present in any age, a metaphor around which all things that can be understood are organized. This "epistem" determines the questions that people can ask and the answers they can receive. The epistem changes historically: as material conditions change, so the mental tropes change, and vice versa. When ages move into new epistems, the science, religion, and art of the past age look absurd. Some Neo-Marxist historians have similarly looked at culture as permanently encoded in a language that changes with the material conditions. As the environment changes, so too do the language constructs.
The possibility of linguistic determinism has been explored by a variety of authors, mostly in science fiction. There exist some languages that have been constructed for the purpose of testing the assumption. However, no formal tests appear to have been done.
- Whorf, B.L. (1956). "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language". In Carroll, J.B. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. pp. 134–159. ISBN 0-262-73006-5.
- Everett, D.L. (August–October). "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language". Current Anthropology 46 (4): 621–646. Supplementary material in electronic edition