Between Linguistic Universalism and Linguistic Relativism: Perspectives on Human Understandings of Reality

By Aminata M. Kone
2013, Vol. 5 No. 09 | pg. 2/2 |

This essay argues that neither the universalist view of Saussure nor the relativist view of Barthes provide us with a realistic understanding of human conceptuality; rather, the answer should be sought in the pluralist theories of Boas, Sapir and Whorf. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is best known as the principle of linguistic relativity that “characteristics of one’s language can affect other aspects of life and must be taken into account” (Leavitt 2006: 47). Opponents have taken the relativity model to be essentialist and have criticised it on that basis as linguistic determinism (Leavitt 2006: 78). We argue that the term ‘linguistic relativity’ is accurate yet misleading, and our main aim here will be to rectify the biggest misconceptions concerning the theory. Although there are many forms of relativism, the term often refers to ‘truth relativism’, which is the concept that there are no absolute truths – in other words, that truth is always relative to a particular frame of reference, such as language or culture. Linguistic relativism, then, implies that reality, at least our reality, is “linguistic through and through” and that “our concepts are a product of our language” (Jackson 1991: 11). This is dismissed by some as “linguistic idealism” (see, for example, Jackson 1991), a replay of the nineteenth century idealism which holds that the world is a mental construct, replacing the notion of ‘mind’ with that of ‘language’.

At first glance, this seems to be precisely what anthropologist Franz Boas meant when he said that “our ideas and conceptions are only true so far as our civilisation goes” (1887: 589). However, he acknowledges that speakers of very different languages can be very similar in social structure, and that speakers of the same language can differ drastically in that aspect (Leavitt 2006: 55). Benjamin Whorf, who translated theories of linguistic relativity into language comprehensible for non-linguists, would later argue that Boas meant the following: that there is a clear distinction between what it is possible to think, which is in principle unlimited for speakers of any language, and what people habitually think, which may be heavily influenced by their language (Darnell 2006: 89; Leavitt 2006: 65). The passage from Boas’ Handbook of Native Indian Languages, in which he writes that he treats Indian grammar “as though an intelligent Indian was going to develop the forms of his own thoughts by an analysis of his own form of speech,” indeed seems to confirm this (Boas 1911, cited in Leavitt 2006: 56). The citation further illustrates what is truly central to his theory: it is not, as critics may suppose, that the world is a chaos of relativity, at least not necessarily; rather, he stresses that the linguistic world is fundamentally plural, and that questions concerning human perception of reality need to be answered from within a given perspective (what he called the “inner form of a language”) and by moving among those perspectives (Ibid: 56).

The emphasis on perspectives leads us to Edward Sapir, who first coined the term ‘linguistic relativity’ in the 1920s. He decided on this metaphor not because of the philosophical meaning of ‘truth relativism’ explained above, but as a reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity, which taught us that differences in one’s observations are the result of differences in his or her position and velocity. Essentially, Sapir argued that a difference in language – like in position and velocity – implies a difference in point of view or perspective, and must therefore be taken into account. This difference, he thought, is the result of the effect language has on an individual’s conceptual patterning. Or, to put it in simpler words: the grammar of a language structures our experience of the world and leads the user to unconscious, typical ways of thinking. This can be mistaken to mean that Sapir underestimates human ability to form a concept even if there is no word for it in their language. And indeed, Jackson, a fierce critic of linguistic relativity, uses the example of the English words ‘sheep’ and ‘mutton’ compared to the single French word mouton to ask: “Can the French not tell the difference between sheep and mutton, since they only have one word for them?” (1991: 209). This rhetorical question implies that Sapir underestimates the extensibility of language: although it would be easiest to have a single word for each concept, we can easily make up a phrase to describe it if we need to. Let us use Sapir’s own words to illustrate that he was not actually saying that there is no way to move in thought among different languages.

The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are different worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. The understanding of a simple poem … involves not merely an understanding of the single words … but a full comprehension of the whole life of the community as it is mirrored in the words (Sapir 1929a [1949], cited in Leavitt 2006: 63).

He does not say that it is impossible to convey the same concept in two languages; he is simply stating that language differences imply differences among lived worlds. Neither does he say that language determines thought; it is “part of a social reality,” and if we want to understand one’s social reality, we need to consider the whole (Leavitt 2006: 63). Language is not “the epitome of culture” (Jackson 1991: 13), but an integral part of culture that should not be neglected when attempting to analyse perceptions of reality within that culture. It becomes clear that neither Boas nor Sapir promote essentialism or determinism, as they do not claim there to be a necessary link between a peoples’ language and their culture. They are not general relativists, as they do not believe all truth is relative. They are not universalist in their approach, as they do not presuppose the existence of an innate linguistic structure applicable to all languages. What they do hold, is that language is more than a mere means of conveying perceptions that are the same everywhere; language does impact the user’s point of view.

To conclude, this analysis examined different theoretical perspectives on human understandings of reality and found that linguistic structuralism is built on Saussure’s semiological premise that a fixed, universal and arbitrary structure can explain human conceptuality, but we have seen that such a structure does not exist. Barthes’ shift to post-structuralism abandons the idea of fixed structural meanings; in doing so, however, he reaches an unrealistic, relativist conclusion that provides no perspective from which to understand human conceptuality. Boas and Sapir, often mistakenly thought to represent linguistic determinism or relativism, provide the most balanced and realistic thesis that human experience is fundamentally plural.


Allen, G. (2011) Intertextuality. 2nd edn. New York: Routledge.

Barthes, R. (1972) Mythologies. 3rd edn. Translated from French by Lavers, A. (2009) London: Vintage.

Boas, F. (1887) ‘Museums of ethnology and their classification’, in Science, Vol. 9, No. 228, pp. 587-589.

Culler, J. (1983) Barthes. London: Fontana Press.

Darnell, R. (2006) ‘Benjamin Lee Whorf and the Boasian foundations of contemporary ethnolinguistics’, in Jourdan, C. and Tuite, K. (eds.) Language, culture and society: key topics in linguistic anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 82-95.

Holdcroft, D. (1991) Saussure: signs, system and arbitrariness. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, L. (1991) The poverty of structuralism: literature and structuralist theory. New York: Longman Inc.

Leavitt, J. (2006) ‘Linguistic relativities’, in Jourdan, C. and Tuite, K. (eds.) Language, culture and society: key topics in linguistic anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 47-81.

Lewis, M Paul. (ed.) (2009) Ethnologue: languages of the world. 16th edn. Dallas: SIL International. [Online version used] Available at (accessed 9 January 2013).

Schaff, A. (1976) ‘Generative grammar and the concept of innate ideas’, in Pinxten, R. (ed.) Universalism versus relativism in language and thought. The Hague: Mouton & Co., pp. 3-56.

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