Apr 19, 2017

Beek: Hamann, Herder and linguistic relativism

As we have seen, the conception of the origin of language was in the enlightenment based on rationality, involving the establishing of a convention facilitating the expression of independently construed thoughts. The change in the conception of the origin of language can be seen as parallel to changing conceptions regarding literature. Whereas in the enlightenment literature was conceived of as reflecting reality, in the subsequent Romantic period the literary use of language was seen as expressing the emotions of the individual poet. In accordance with this change of ideas in literary thought, the ideas on the origin of language changed as well. It was now thought that language had originated from the expressing of emotions, rather than being based on rational agreement. This idea had already been expressed by forerunners of Romanticism like Blackwell in his 1735 work An Enquiry Into the Life and Writings of Homer, and thereafter maintained by Monboddo, Rousseau and Vico. These writings had an impact on Hamann’s 1762 work Kreuzzüge des Philologen. This work was a frontal attack upon the prevalent ideas on language held in the Enlightenment period. In his work the various ingredients of linguistic relativism can all be found: he states that while some similarities among languages can be found, there are also differences. And those differences among languages parallel differences in thought. Language did not originate from thought, but its origin had been prior to thought, for thought presupposes a language in which it might manifest itself. Hamann may thus be seen as the first one to hold such relativistic views in a strongly articulated fashion.

Hamann’s work had a thorough influence upon Herder, as is apparent from the latter’s 1772 prize winning essay Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache. Herder’s essay answered the question posed by the Berlin Academy, who intended to resolve the question whether language had a human/rational or a divine origin. Herder however did not favour either of these options, but refuted both and instead introduced the emotional variant that was not very common at the time. The opening sentence of the first section is already quite suggestive:

“Schon als Tier hat der Mensch Sprache . Alle heftigen und die heftigsten unter den heftigen, die schmerzhaften Empfindungen sei nes Körpers, alle starke Leidenschaften seiner Seele äußern sich unmittelbar in Gesch rei, in Töne, in wilde, unartikulierte Laute.” [Herder1772, erster Teil, erster Abschnitt]
This work was widely influential; together with that of the before mentioned authors, it changed the way in which researchers thought about the origin of language. By providing an alternative to the rationalistic variant, the emotional variant questioned the primacy of thought to language. Now other constellations became possible (language preceding thought or language and thought originating at the same time) and thus the discussion of linguistic relativity was opened.

Herders’ concept of linguistic relativity was fitted into a much broader anti-rational framework, questioning the traditional conception of the universality of reason, and instead opting for individual spontaneity as the main source of thought. Herder thus maintained there being a wide variety of different intellectual societies. The importance of language within this constellation is that it is the primary source through which one can observe these various societies. In his critique on Kant he elaborated upon this topic. He therein opted that language is the necessary medium for thought to be exercised, a statement that had also been present in the work of Hamann. Herder however takes an even more radical stance by asserting that thought itself is internalised language, thus equating language and thought.

BEEK, Wouter (2006). Linguistic Relativism: Variants and Misconceptions. University of Amsterdam

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