Linguistic relativity and universalism: a Judeo-philosophical re-evaluation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
Fruchter, Temima Geula
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For decades Benjamin Lee Whorf’s linguistic relativity principle, or the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the idea that the language we speak influences our worldview – has been held in contempt, being at odds with Noam Chomsky’s view that language is innate and that all languages are basically the same. In recent years, however, the linguistic relativity principle has been making somewhat of a comeback. This comeback has awakened such polarisation between the two views that their respective contributions have been eclipsed. This is unfortunate, as the discussion has much to contribute to linguistics and other disciplines as well, such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, education, political science and media studies, among others. This study re-evaluates the linguistic relativity principle in light of new evidence, and shows that the two sides can – and should – be mediated. For such purpose, the Judaic conception of language can serve as a framework, as it posits that language is a Divine (universal) endowment, on the one hand, and a creative (individual, human) force, on the other. This study aims to awaken the reader to the power of language and the inextricable link between language, thought and action, as well as between language, culture and identity. The first part of the study presents a critical analysis of linguistic relativity and innateness, explaining why the two have become so polarised and how this dichotomisation should not be viewed in isolation from its academic and socio-political context. It also discusses the philosophical bedding of the two, using as a framework Taylor’s (2016) view of language as designative (as gleaned from Hobbes, Locke and Condillac), or as constitutive (as gleaned from Hamann, Herder and Humboldt), as well as other philosophers in the latter half of the study (notably Benjamin, Scholem, Rosenzweig and Derrida). The second part presents the Judaic conception of language, exploring the Divine roots of language in the Jewish tradition and the role of language in Judaism, from theory through practice in daily life and onto the odd revival of Hebrew in the 19th century and its implications for the modern State of Israel and its secular-religious divide. It is argued that a people that maintains its language is sourced with the Divine treats language – and specifically its own language – differently. Through intertextual reading of Jewish philosophical, halakhic and Kabbalistic texts, it is demonstrated that linguistic relativity, as well as Taylor’s constitutive view of language, resonate with the Judaic conception of language while extreme nativism, and the designative view of language, do not. It also explores how the Hebrew language is itself a paradigmatic example of many of Whorf’s ideas, specifically oligosynthetic languages (languages that are built up by, and can be broken down into, elemental components) embodying a “chemistry of speech” as well as Lucy’s (1997) discursive relativity as regards the Jewish people’s symbiotic relationships with the Hebrew language. The work concludes with a discussion of the relevance of relativity/particularism and innateness/universalism to our present-day reality, demonstrating that the comeback linguistic relativity is making is not arbitrary – and one might even say uncanny, from the Jewish perspective of the End of Days. It has much to inform us in its application to our globalised world of technologically enhanced multi-platform, multicultural communication, with its post-truth politics and the ever-increasing, media-induced cacophony of our divided digital democracy. It further shows that the linguistic relativity principle, although premised on a particularist mind-set, has universal implications and applications.