Linguistic determinism

Linguistic determinism

Linguistic determinism is the idea that language shapes thought. Determinism itself refers to the viewpoint that all events are caused by previous events, and linguistic determinism can be used broadly to refer to a number of specific views.

For example, those who follow analytic philosophy from Ludwig Wittgenstein onward accept the proposition that, as Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." (proposition 5.6), "The subject does not belong to the world, but it is a limit of the world." (proposition 5.632) and "About what one can not speak, one must remain silent." (proposition 7). That is, the words we possess determine the things that we can know. If we have an experience, we are confined not just in our communication of it, but also in our "knowledge" of it, by the words we possess.

From an entirely different starting point, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis argues that individuals experience the world based on the grammatical structures they habitually use. For example, speakers of different languages may see different numbers of bands in a rainbow. Since rainbows are actually a continuum of color, there are no empirical stripes or bands, and yet people see as many bands as their language possesses primary color words. Although neither Edward Sapir nor his student Benjamin Lee Whorf ever wrote an "hypothesis" of this nature, writings such as Whorf's "The Relation of Thought and Behavior to Language" (1956) make arguments based on a version of linguistic determinism.

A separate angle on linguistic determinism maintains that language is the only thing that is ever known. The objective world is entirely removed by the presence of language. It is perceived, but human life is determined by having language and by the language's own internal demands. Like semiotics, which argues that a single grammar exists prior to all human activity (although the grammar of semiotics is not strictly linguistic), these linguistic determinists say that the structures, hierarchies, and hidden associations of our individual human languages determine the conclusions that we reach in our logic, the aspirations of our lived lives, and all our emotional content.

Role in literary theory

Linguistic determinism is a partial assumption behind a number of recent developments in rhetoric and literary theory. For example, Jacques Derrida's project of deconstruction aims to break apart the terms of "paradigmatic" hierarchies. (In language structures, some terms exist only with antonyms, such as light/dark, and others exist only with subordination, such as father/son and mother/daughter. Derrida's targets are the latter.) 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 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 always encoded in a language that changes with the material conditions. As the dialectic struggle of economic forces clash and synthesize, so too do the language constructs.

Fictional allusion

In George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four", it is noted that the true purpose of Oceania's official language, Newspeak, is to reshape the English language so it is impossible to commit thoughtcrime. Many words are made obsolete to grant the Party a universally narrow way of thinking.


Linguistic determinism is far from universally accepted. In August 2004, however, Peter Gordon, a psychologist at Columbia University, published [ a study] that provides support to the hypothesis of linguistic determinism. The study investigated abilities held by native speakers of the language of a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Brazil, Pirahã, which is a "one, two, many" language (that is, a language which contains words only for the numbers one and two, all other numbers being simply represented by a single word meaning "many"). It was demonstrated that these native speakers had an impaired ability to compare quantities of objects higher than three, and that their ability to conceive of numbers was comparable to that of an infant. Opponents of linguistic determinism, though, have suggested that Gordon's findings might be explained by non-linguistic factorsFact|date=April 2008, and that the issue remains far from settled.

Idealism and empiricism both reject the idea that language is prior to knowledge (idealism) or sense (empiricism).


*Whorf, B.L. (1956). "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language." In J.B. Carroll (ed.) "Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf" (pp.134-159). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 0262730065

*Everett, D.L. (2005). "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language" in "italic"Current Anthropology"italic" 46 (4) (August-October):621-646 (supplementary material in electronic edition at

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