“Via the latter, qua character of a speech-sound, a pervasive analogy necessarily prevails in the same language; and since a like subjectivity also affects language in the same notion, there resides in every language a characteristic world-view. As the individual sound stands between man and the object, so the entire language steps in between him and the nature that operates, both inwardly and outwardly, upon him. He surrounds himself with a world of sounds, so as to take up and process within himself the world of objects. These expressions in no way outstrip the measure of the simple truth. Man lives primarily with objects, indeed, since feeling and acting in him depend on his presentations, he actually does so exclusively, as language presents them to him. By the same act whereby he spins language out of himself, he spins himself into it, and every language draws about the people that possesses it a circle whence it is possible to exit only by stepping over at once into the circle of another one. To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint in the world-view hitherto possessed, and in fact to a certain extent is so, since every language contains the whole conceptual fabric and mode of presentation of a portion of mankind.”
Wilhelm von Humboldt
On Language (1836)
* * *
For purposes of historical background and contemporary context, the below passage shows where Wilhelm von Humboldt fits into the centuries of linguistic studies and theories. Early notions of language shaping culture have had a long influence and remain relevant, according to generations of research into linguistic relativity. This following passage also clarifies why a cultural view is not inherently opposed to incorporating biological understandings. What it does do is resist the temptation of the biological reductionism that has become dominant in this age of scientism where even the soft sciences create pretenses of being hard sciences. Interestingly, it has been the linguists doing fieldwork based on direct observation and real world data that have been among the strongest defenders of a cultural interpretation, as opposed to the academic (armchair) linguistics like Noam Chomsky who have dismissed field research entirely.
“Recursion and Lexicon” by Jan Koster
from Recursion and Human Language ed. by Harry van der Hulst
“Current theorizing about the human language faculty, particularly about recursion, is dominated by the biolinguistics perspective. This perspective has been part of the generative enterprise since its inception and can be summarized as follows: The core of language is individual-psychological and may ultimately be explained in terms of human biology. A classical formulation of this program was Lenneberg (1967) and it was revitalized recently by Jenkins (2000) and particularly by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) (henceforth: HCF). According to HCF, recursion (in the form of Merge) is the core of the human language faculty biologically conceived.
“The biological perspective is far from self-evidently correct and, in fact, goes against a long tradition that emphasized the cultural, conventional nature of language. This tradition goes back at least to Aristotle’s De Interpretatione and became the core idea about language since the late Enlightenment and Romanticism, thanks to the influence of Herder, Von Humboldt and others. Most early 20th-century views were offshoots of the great conceptions formulated around the turn of the 18th century. Thus, Ferdinand de Saussure followed German Romanticism in this respect, as did the grreat American structuralists Franz Boas and Edward Sapir. Saussure was also influenced by one of the founding fathers of sociology, Emile Durkheim, who argued that certain social facts could not be reduced to individual psychology or biology. Also philosophers like Wittgenstein and Popper followed the European tradition, the former with his emphasis on the public and language game-dependent nature of linguistic rules, the latter by stipulating that language belongs to his (pseudo-technical) conception of supra-individual human culture known as “world 3” (Popper 1972).
“None of these conceptions excludes a biological basis for language, for the trivial reason that all human culture and activity has a biological basis. Sapir (1921: 3), for instance, adheres to the cultural view of language: “[…] walking is an inherent, biological function of man” but “[…] speech is non-instinctive, acquired, “cultural” function” (1921: 4). Clearly, however, this does not exclude biology for Sapir (1921: 9):
“Physiologically, speech is an overlaid function, or to be more precise, a group of overlaid functions. It gets what service it can out of organs and functions, nervous and muscular, that have come into being and are maintained for very different ends than its own.
“Biological structures with a new, “overlaid” function is like what biologists Gould and Vrba (1982) call “exaptation.””
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt
from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Wilhelm von Humboldt lectures
from Université de Rouen
Wilhelm von Humbold and the World of Languages
by Ian F. McNeely