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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, "What we cannot say, we must pass over in silence." 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 words they possess. Sapir and Whorf asked people to describe how many stripes or bands they saw in a rainbow. Since rainbows are actually a continuum of color, there are no empirical stripes or bands, and yet people saw as many bands as their language possessed primary color words.

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 antonymns, 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 looks absurd. Some neo-Marxist historians have similarly looked at culture as encoded always 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.

Occurance in fiction

In George Orwell's acclaimed novel 1984, it is noted that the true purpose of Oceania's official language, Newspeak, it to reshape the English language so it is impossible to commit thoughtcrime. Millions of 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 strong experimental 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 other, non-linguistic factors, 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).

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