against linguistic relativity (or the sapir-whorf hypothesis)
October 5, 2013
i have no idea why the notion of linguistic relativity is suddenly on my mind today
but i wanted to not (as I have in the past) that i reject the notion of linguistic relativity. in part because i am an ontological realist and empiricist (ie, I believe the external world exists and that we can know things about the external world). but also for the many and varied white supremacist applications i’ve seen of the theory.
unfortunately, linguistic relativism has somewhat firmly entrenched itself in many modern critical theories (often in very subtle ways). in turn, you can often perceive its presence as an unstated or implicit assumption in quite a few people’s discussions about liberation.
as oppressed, colonized people, many of us struggle with language. struggle with maintain connection to our mother tongues. struggle with not even knowing what out mother tongue is. struggle with resisting colonial intrusions into our language. struggle with being forced to (far too often) to speak in a colonial language.
in many liberatory discourses, you’ll see a great deal of focus on language. on identity markers. on words that are oppressive and words that are not.
and these things are important. language is important. it is a powerful tool. and a important repository for our cultures. it matters a fucking lot.
but the notion that language shapes how you understand/experience/etc the world. and that different languages entail necessarily different worldviews is so completely fucked up that i can’t even.
it ends up asserting that those of us in the diaspora unfortunate enough not to learn our mother tongues will always and forever be forced to understand the world in the way of our oppressor. that our minds have truly been colonized and we can never be free.
it is also especially anti-Black given that many descendants of enslaved people do not know and will never know what their mother tongue is/was. but who have contributed so fucking much to our current liberatory discourses (and who continue contributing so much), that ultimately because they speak whatever colonized language they are forced to speak, that they actually cannot know anything beyond the bars of this cage.
it is also especially anti-Indigenous. people (especially in settled states) who often via long running genocides have also been violently and forcibly separated from their languages (sometimes even to the point of linguistic death). that they cannot and will never be able to think beyond the confines of their linguistic prison.
it also entrenches white supremacist epistemology and theories of history. that nothing is knowable or known if not expressed in language. that history starts with the written word.
it also serves to significantly fracture and devalue liberatory discourse. essentially precluding the very notion that any coalition or inter-cultural solidarity. rendering it impossible since we necessarily have different, relative notions of freedom that may be incomprehensible and incommensurable.1
tl:dr; fuck linguistic determinism and one should be careful of the ways that it can creep into your discourse