Cultural and conceptual relativism, universalism and the politics of linguistics

Christopher M. Hutton
Department of English, the University of Hong Kong


One of the more celebrated fables in the history of twentieth century linguistics is Benjamin Whorf's description, in his essay "The relation of habitual thought and behaviour to language", of how the label empty, when applied to a gasoline drum, became a fire-hazard (Whorf 1956 [1941]: 135):

Physically the situation is hazardous, but the linguistic analysis according to regular analogy must employ the word 'empty', which inevitably suggests lack of hazard. The word 'empty' is used in two linguistic patterns: (1) as a virtual synonym for 'null and void, negative, inert'; (2) applied in analysis of physical situations without regard to, e.g. vapor, liquid vestiges, or stray rubbish, in the container.

A single term, empty, can be used to describe a diverse set of phenomena in the world. This illustrates how the linguistic "map" is much simpler that the "territory"; to forget this by allowing one's direct awareness of reality to be dulled is to be vulnerable to the map's limitations.

The practical orientation of the opening section of Whorf's essay soon gives way to consideration of more philosophical issues such as plurality, number, quantity, etc. English has "real plurals and imaginary plurals" since we say not only ten men but also ten hours, making a false analogy between two different ontological realms. How does this come about? "Just as in the case of the fire-causing errors, from the fact that our language confuses the two different situations, has but one pattern for both" (1956: 139). The Hopi language does not share this defect (1956: 140): "In Hopi there is a different linguistic situation. Plurals and cardinals are used only for entities that form or can form an objective group."

Whorf's work as a whole seems to take a political stance in defending conceptual relativism and native American cultures from the charge of being "primitive" in the pejorative sense of that term. But it also points towards a merger of science and culture; a rational alignment of language, thought and reality. In this spirit, it offers a sustained critique of Standard Average European as a model of reality, and suggests that Hopi is superior. This judgment is based on Whorf's interpretation of Hopi as less prone to false reifications, false abstractions and misleading metaphorical conversions between different ontological realms. Flux, subjectivity, a relative understanding of time are juxtaposed to the essentialism and false oppositions found in English and other European languages.

One could argue for two quite separate cultural-political positions and call both of them "Whorfian". The first view runs as follows. Human beings are strongly influenced in their understanding of the world by the language they learn as a child; these understandings may vary widely between different cultures and also in respect of their level of abstraction. Modern science teaches us that the world is made of up energy fields in flux; the concrete reality we see before us is an illusion; categories like time and space cannot be reduced to our common sense understandings. The conclusion to be drawn here is that in order to understand the world we should strive to merge science and culture. Being modern may make us think more like the Hopi, but that is only because what the world-view the Hopi offers is -- ironically -- much closer to that offered by modern science. The Hopi have been spared the scholasticism of western culture, its reifications and two-valued logic; they are naive scientists who have escaped the deadening effects of western language culture. The conclusion to draw from this is that western thought can use Hopi as a corrective to our thinking, but that this corrective can also be found by attending to the advances in modern science and in applying deconstructive techniques to SAE languages.

The second would be an ecology argument, now familiar in language rights and "endangered language" advocacy. Different languages offer us special insights into how the world works; they have their own understandings of time and space; they have complex taxonomies of the natural world; they have rich and complex systems of exchange which enable them to manage conflict. From this point of view, there is no theory-neutral stance from which to view the world; there are no grounds to assert the superiority of one cultural point of view over another. We should therefore strive to protect the diversity of the world's languages, just as we strive to protect its diversity in other spheres.

The first view might be considered universalistic; the second represents one of the possible forms of cultural relativism. Do we, in considering the politics of linguistics, have to make a choice between these two views? Which is progressive and which reactionary? At least superficially, this looks like a clash between modernity and cultural diversity. For the view that culture and science should merge is at odds with the ecological view of linguistic diversity. We could similarly distinguish between a feminist linguistics that seeks to promote a levelling of difference, or at least a therapeutic awareness of difference (e.g. Deborah Tannen), and one which seeks to recover, reconstruct, create and celebrate women's language as representing an autonomous culture (Dale Spender, Mary Daly).

Universalistic tendencies in critical language awareness

The promotion of therapeutic awareness of how language constructs the world for us is the aim of a movement called General Semantics. This movement is associated with Alfred Korzybski, Charles Morris, S. Hayakawa, Anatol Rapoport and Stuart Chase. General Semantics offers a critique of western thought (as exemplified in the philosophy of Aristotle), and in particular of the so-called "law of identity", the proposition that "A is A". Chase (1955: 145) explained this principle as recognition that "no two events in nature are identical", adding: "This proposition is accepted by modern scientists. It runs counter to the 'is of identity' in Indo-European languages and to the 'A is A' of formal logic." Whorf's cautionary tales of fire accidents are very much in the spirit of General Semantics, but so also are his more philosophical criticism of English. In General Semantics, therapeutic awareness of language takes the form of attending to the level of abstraction of the concepts one is using and of taking direct note of the reality to which they are referring. Whorf's influence is apparent in Chase's claim that (1955: 146) "[e]vents in nature are four-dimensional. Modern physicists, as well as the Hopi Indians, think in terms of space-time. Some other languages are structured for three dimensions, and those who speak them have difficulties with the concept of time." The scientific realism is apparent in the key slogan that "a map is not the territory", which is explained by Chase as the view that "[o]ur words are not nature but their structure should correspond to the structure of nature if we are to understand the world."

In this deconstruction of the categories of western thought, not only Native American languages but also eastern languages, particularly Chinese, were adduced as evidence. English and other western languages were alleged to employ simplistic dualities (antonymies) that did not allow for the complex nature of reality. Eastern languages were "multi-valued". This is how Chase explains the contrast between east and west (1955: 106):

Linguists have [....] emphasized that Chinese is a "multi-valued" language, not primarily two-valued like English and Western languages generally. We say that things must be "good' or "bad", "right" or "wrong", "clean" or "dirty", "capitalistic" or "socialistic", "black" or "white" - ignoring shades of gray. [...] Speakers of Chinese set up no such grim dichotomies; they see most situations in shades of gray, and have no difficulty in grasping the significance of a variety of middle roads. As a result, Chinese thought has been traditionally tolerant, not given to the fanatical ideologies of the West. Racial, religious, and doctrinal conflicts have been hard to maintain in China, because a Chinese speaker does not possess an unshakable confidence that he is totally right and that you are totally wrong. Observe that this is not a moral judgment, but structural in the language.

Chase then considered the prospects for Marxism in China, noting that the Chinese leadership had accepted it (1955: 106-107):

Marxism in China? [...] Russian is an Indo-European language, and the two-sided choice is readily accepted by its speakers. The choice was accepted, too, by top leaders of the Chinese communists today, for they went to Moscow to be indoctrinated, and to learn the Russian language. But 400 hundred million Chinese have not been to Moscow or learned Russian or any other Indo-European language. [Ö] In any event, the language barrier to Marxism is formidable.

This view of non-western languages found something in common between Chinese and Native American languages. Much suspicion was directed at the verb to be, for it was held that this verb was often misleading because it asserts a false identification. Chase continues (1955: 107):

The Wintu Indians of North America are even more shy of the law of identity (A is A) than the Chinese, says D. D. Lee, writing in the International Journal of American Linguistics. We say, "this is bread", but in Wintu they say, "we call this bread". They avoid the "is of identity", and so are less likely to confuse words with things. When a Wintu speaks of an event not within his own experience, he never affirms it but only suggests, "perhaps it is so".

The attack on the categories of western languages can be seen as a fundamental tendency in western thought in the twentieth century and it is closely tied to the academic and popular reception of eastern thought ("Orientalism"). Deconstruction within literary theory, with its attacks on the foundational dichotomies of western thought, and its logophobia, is one of its many intellectual manifestations. Deconstruction -- not least through Heidegger -- also has links to what could be termed western Taoism, the complex popular and academic reception of Taoist and Zen Buddhist thought in the west. For example, during the summer of 1946 Heidegger -- now banned from teaching as a former Nazi Party member -- retired to his cabin at Todnauberg and worked once a week with Paul Hsiao on a translation of the Tao Te Ching (Hsiao 1990).

What these currents have most strongly in common is a rejection of western language structures and the associated world-view (Suzuki 1963: 10):

In the West, "yes" is "yes" and "no" is "no"; "yes" can never be "no" or vice versa. The East makes "yes" slide over to "no" and "no to "yes"; there is no hard and fast division between "yes" and "no". It is in the nature of life that it is so. It is only in logic that the division is ineradicable. Logic is human-made to assist in utilitarian activities.

Writing in Etc., the journal of the General Semantics movement, Morris (1951: 3-4) discussed the similarities and differences between Korzybski's view of language and Zen Buddhism as interpreted by Suzuki:

In their attitude towards language, the general semanticist Korzybski and the Zen Buddhist Suzuki have indeed much in common. Both are aware of the inadequacies and pitfalls of conceptualization; both stress the need for keeping language simple, concrete, flexible; both admonish man to master his symbols rather than being mastered by them; both believe that this attitude releases human spontaneity, wholeness, and sanity. And yet there is a difference of emphasis between the general semanticist.

That difference lay in the stressing of science by the general semanticist, who sees "the task of language to be an ever more adequate mapping of the world". Zen Buddhism, while not hostile to science, "insists that there is an important kind of experience (satori, Zen experience) for which the language of paradox and contradiction is the natural, appropriate and necessary form of expression." Morris (1951: 4) quotes the following Zen utterances invoked by Suzuki: "Empty-handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands: I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding; When I pass over the bridge Lo, the water floweth not, but the bridge doth flow."

In a subsequent edition of Etc., Sheldon Klein developed parallels between Zen Buddhism and western thinkers such as Whorf and Wittgenstein. Klein concluded, however, that the similarities were largely contingent and the aims were different (1957: 97): "For Zen, the knowledge that the world of abstraction is an 'illusion' is almost an end in itself, a means to 'self-realization'. The goal is to acquire a complete disassociation from such an "illusory" world, and to 'exist' on the level of noumena, or beyond (?)." General Semantics aimed at the minimization of the confusion that arises through language (ibid.): "In one sense, the new Western philosophy was necessitated by the results of modern physics, which demanded a new logic and understanding of language for their comprehension. The function of Zen general semantics is to abandon the 'illusion', while that of the Western philosophy is to manipulate it."

We could summarize by saying that the universalistic critique of western language categories leads either to a realist general semantics in the spirit of modern physics, or to an anti-realist, deconstructionist "play of signification". These are both universalistic in the sense they make no claims to represent the world-view of particular cultures as a counterweight to the western SAE world-view. What unites Whorf's fable about gasoline drums and academic deconstruction is a common mistrust of the categories of language, exemplified in western SAE languages such as English.

One aspect of General Semantics is scrutiny of labels such as ethnic designations or social categories. If we say that John is a criminal we seem to label John absolutely, although John may have many other attributes (John is a father, John is 39 years old, John is nice to animals, etc.). By using the word criminal, we link murderers and violent bank-robbers with less serious forms of crime, and construct an identity rather than applying a contingent label. A General Semanticist would prefer to say John committed a crime or John committed the crime of theft rather than simply label John as a criminal. General Semantics therefore has links to twentieth century critiques of political propaganda and media language, with their scrutiny of rhetorical devices such as personification (Clinton is bombing Saddam Hussein), depersonification (e.g. talking of the enemy's war-machine), etc. Terms such as "collateral damage" with a history of use from the Vietnam war to the present are condemned as euphemistic; legal jargon and advertising slogans are analyzed; dichotomies are deconstructed. This form of critical analysis has been practiced by linguists such as George Lakoff who are also -- broadly speaking -- in the Whorfian tradition. The critique relies on an implicit sense of there being a level of abstraction appropriate for the context, and a possibility of a corrective to the bias introduced by metaphor (Lakoff 1991: 8): "Reality exists. So does the unconscious system of metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend reality. [Ö] Because of the pervasiveness of metaphor in thought, we cannot always stick to discussions of reality in purely literal terms."

Relativistic tendencies in critical language awareness

Deconstruction, while fundamentally a universalistic technique of reading against the grain, of de-reification, coexisted uneasily with radical political assertions of difference put forward in postcolonial theory and radical feminism. These attempts to use deconstruction to dismantle oppressive power structures however faced the problem that deconstruction could be applied just as well to alternative narratives and cultural formations. The attack on western rationalism and "the Enlightenment project" within post-structuralism and deconstruction should be linked to anti-universalistic trends within linguistics, particularly the attack on so-called "linguistic imperialism" launched by Robert Phillipson (1992). Phillipson's diagnosis of the world's linguistic ills informs M¸hlh‰usler's defence of linguistic ecology (1996: 338):

Apart from the moral considerations that would seem to force linguists to speak up for the preservation of linguistic and conceptual diversity we should also realise that this is the last chance for Western linguists to learn from the numerous alternative philosophical and conceptual systems that may be hidden in the small languages of the Pacific area. They should be seen as a reservoir of human knowledge, as examples of the ability of humans to create rules, create explanations and accommodate a wide range of circumstances. So long as we cannot be certain that the progress we are experiencing is progress in the right direction, to discard diversity for seemingly progressive uniformity seems a very dangerous gamble.

Accompanying this view is scepticism about progress, suspicion of modernity, fear of the leveling of identities and assimilation, a rejection of implicit claims for universal validity. Linguistic ecology is predicated on the existence of and value of language structures as world-views; the promotion of language rights presupposes a model of identity in which the native speaker's mother tongue is central.

The threat of modern states, their urban cultures and schools systems to the ecology of language is the underlying theme in R. Dixon's recent The rise and fall of languages (1997: 104-105):

Once schooling was introduced, instruction was generally in the prestige language of the nation. Children whose parents spoke Irish or Welsh or the Yorkshire dialect of English were schooled in the London dialect of English and punished for any deviation from this norm. This applies just about everywhere in the world. For instance, in 1985 I lived in 1985 for some months in the Boumaa region of Fiji which has its own dialect, mutually intelligible with the standard language, Bau.

Dixon recalls that he used to attend a church service which was being held in Bau. On one occasion he was asked to say a prayer and used the local Boumaa dialect: "For this I received a reprimand - God, the Christian priests had said, only likes to be addressed in Bau" (1997: 105). In the light of the possible negative impact of missionaries, "[c]ountries which do allow linguistic missionaries to work among their indigenous peoples should pay close attention to the type of people undertaking this work (1997: 145fn.). Dixon's book is a plea for linguists to devote their energies to recording languages on the brink of extinction (1997: 144): "Each language encapsulates the world-view of its speakers - how they think, what they value, what they believe in, how they classify the world around them, how they order their lives. Once a language dies, a part of human culture is lost forever."

Language rights rhetoric stresses naturalness, richness, and diversity; it is holistic, evoking the totality of particular cultures and language, autonomy, and the value of difference. Both M¸hlh‰usler and Dixon evoke a non-hierarchical, non-competitive premodern social order, and points to the destructive impact of colonialism, missionary activity, modernization and now globalization (Dixon 1997: 113fn.). M¸hlh‰usler in particular suggests that premodern diversity should not be understood in terms of discrete languages, and as they having been no oppressive power relations between languages (1996: 148): "in pre-colonial days there appears to have been a relatively egalitarian attitude toward language." The effect of missionary promotion of vernacular writing-systems for Bible translation and the importation of western languages is to disrupt that egalitarian ecology where individual languages were not clearly defined and language variation existed along a continuum with no clear boundaries.

Dilemmas of a would-be progressive linguistics

Modernity can be presented as progressive: it offers medicine, schools, writing systems, elections, passports, rights. Yet the modern state, enlightenment humanism and its institutions have been attacked by the followers of Michel Foucault; that attack has been extended by postcolonial theorists who have pointed to the links between western thought and colonial expansionism. The history of modern linguistics -- often traced to the work of Sir William Jones -- is coextensive with that of high colonialism and inextricably tied to it. Linguistics as a mapping enterprise can be seen as no less an expression of the obsession of the colonial power/knowledge nexus than imperial geography, anthropology and law. From this point of view, linguistic analysis is intrinsically invasive and transforming in their encounter with the "other". The practices of descriptive linguistics require forms of privileged social access, and the attempt to set up a typology in which the relationships between the world's languages are laid out is an expression of a universal "panoptic" vision.

Two strands that meet in the intellectual rejections of modernity in the twentieth century are Orientalism and fascism. As illustration, one could take the careers of diverse figures such as Daisetz Suzuki, Ezra Pound, Martin Heidegger. Orientalist deconstruction serves to strip away the layers of reification stifling western thought, liberating the vital and original concepts beneath. It is analogous to prinitivism in the visual arts within modernism. Within linguistics, a striking example of this nexus between fascism and Orientalism is the work of sociologist of language, Heinz Kloss. In addition to his work on assimilation and ethnic survival as a language rights theorists, Kloss was a follower of the Orientalist theorist of biogenesis, Ernst Fuhrmann, and a member of the Nazi Party (Kloss 1929, Hutton 1999).

While language rights or mother-tongue rights are often defended in the context of discussions of levelling effects of modernity and the increasing dominance of English and powerful national standard languages in many societies, this identity model also implies rejection of belief systems such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The concept of mother-tongue has little place in these belief systems in their traditional forms. Moreover, the history of conceptual relativism within linguistics is bound up with the ethnic politics of twentieth century Europe. The issues that arise can be illustrated by looking at the place of the German neo-Humboldtian school of thought within intellectual and political history. That school (or intellectual trend) is associated primarily with the name of Leo Weisgerber, but might also be said to include -- leaving their differences to one side -- linguists such as Jost Trier, Walter Porzig, and AndrÈ Jolles. In the pre-WWII period, these scholars were associated with a neo-structuralist approach to the study of word meaning (word field theory). In 1959 a Festschrift in honour of Leo Weisgerber's 60th birthday appeared, edited by Helmut Gipper. The majority of the contributors were drawn from the intellectual circles associated with neo-Humboldtianism in Germany; there was however one North American contributor, Harry Hoijer.

From one point of view, this association between the Boas-Sapir-Whorf North American tradition and the German neo-Humboldtians is a natural one, given their common assumptions and their common intellectual roots. The twist in the tale comes if one looks more closely at the German contributors to the Weisgerber Festschrift. They include at least five former members of the Nazi Party (E. Rothacker, W. Porzig, H. Brinkmann, J. Trier, L. Mackensen), as well as two others who have been criticized (fairly or not) for complicity with Nazism (H. Moser, G. Deeters). Weisgerber himself played an important (some would argue, central) role in the linguistics of the Third Reich, though the exact nature of that role is highly controversial (Hutton 1999).

While neo-Humboldtianism can be read as an expression of liberal nationalism and enlightened cultural relativism, it must thus also been seen in the context of the anti-universalism of National Socialist scholarship. That anti-universalism involved a reaction against positivist methodologies in science and against the ethical void that modern materialist science was perceived to have created. Within linguistics, this led to a rejection of Neogrammarian uniformitarianism, and an emphasis on each language as constructing an autonomous world-view for its speakers, and on the dynamic way in which a language constructs a meaningful world for its speakers. In Nazi Germany, the ideology of mother tongue and the promotion of world-view linguistics was associated with an attack on Judaism and Jews (who were perceived as having no "natural" sense of mother-tongue loyalty), on Catholicism and Judeo-Christian claims to universal validity and truth. It also underlay attacks on Basic English and the spread of English as a world language (Hutton 1999: 4, 201).

It will be argued that the advocacy of language rights must be seen in political context; it may be chauvinist or reactionary in one context and progressive in another. In M¸hlh‰usler's terms, however, as a stage in the evolution of language ecology it is already too late. The paradox of M¸hlh‰usler's position is that the premodern diversity, the natural ecology that is under threat, cannot be named or described. For the very process of labelling brings artificial distinctions to that natural continuum. Yet without that labelling one cannot speak of saving "languages", since the concept of discrete language is an artificial product of modernity. One cannot have language rights without languages; the call for mother-tongue rights is a revolt against an already established modernity. Dixon's call for linguists to describe languages under threat of extinction is similarly paradoxical, since it requires increased access by representatives of modernity to those domains in which the linguistic eco-system is still intact. This paradox is further encapsulated in the western linguist consciously violating the norms of a Fijian church service in the name of a western "vernacularist" ideology.

From one point of view, anti-universalism is an expression of sensitivity to cultural difference. It underlies modern multi-culturalism and demands for cultural tolerance. Yet the attack on Enlightenment universalism was also a key element in Nazi thought, and the rejection of western liberal (universalising) modernity (including democracy) has been part of reactionary and fascist modernism (J¸nger, Klages, Heidegger). Cultural relativism, no less than imperialism, consumer capitalism and rationalism, is a western ideology. Mother-tongue vernacularism has its roots in Protestantism nationalism; it is one side of Europe's ambiguous linguistic heritage to the world. In addition to the linguistic imperialism that promoted English, one could with equal justification talk of missionaries and linguists promoting mother-tongue or vernacular imperialism.


What is the moral of Whorf's fable of the gasoline-drums? Is it that language is itself a danger, a distorting lens that is placed between the world and us? Or are human beings the problem, since they allow their understanding of the flux of reality to be dominated by language habits. The first conclusion leads one to argue for language reform; the second for consciousness-raising, for techniques that develop awareness of reality and the immediate context. These lessons are both general lessons; they suggest the need for a corrective and therefore the existence of a metalinguistic level on which the distortion can be expressed. Neither conclusion is in any sense relativistic. Whorf's thought expresses relativity within a universal framework. That framework is linguistic analysis. Linguistic structure may be relativistic, but the descriptive techniques of linguistics are not. These techniques exhibit the diversity of the linguistic world-views, but the linguist has the universal metalanguage, the universal key. The defence of linguistic ecology, the advocacy of language rights, the promotion of linguistic modernity through English and the scientific realism of General Semantics can each be seen as expressions of an ideological drive to transform language according to a universal ideology.


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linguistic relativity; modernity; universalism; Orientalism; Nazism