Humboldt, Worldview and Language

Humboldt, Worldview and Language

James W. Underhill
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 176
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r29b9
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Humboldt, Worldview and Language
    Book Description:

    With the loss of many of the world's languages, it is important to question what will be lost to humanity with their demise. It is frequently argued that a language engenders a 'worldview', but what do we mean by this term? Attributed to German politician and philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), the term has since been adopted by numerous linguists. Within specialist circles it has become associated with what is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which suggests that the nature of a language influences the thought of its speakers and that different language patterns yield different patterns of thought.Underhill's concise and rigorously researched book clarifies the main ideas and proposals of Humboldt's linguistic philosophy and demonstrates the way his ideas can be adopted and adapted by thinkers and linguists today. A detailed glossary of terms is provided in order to clarify key concepts and to translate the German terms used by Humboldt.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-4022-5
    Subjects: Linguistics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Part I: Language and World
    • CHAPTER 1 The Word is a World (La parole est un monde)
      (pp. 3-9)

      Linguists by profession and by inclination are attracted to the multiple varieties of speech and language that have grown up in the world. Diversity has been celebrated and, now that languages appear to be dying out with increasing speed, many linguists (Crystal, Dalby, Nettle, Romaine, Hagège et al.) have taken it upon themselves to strive to save them while there is still time. In the discourse of such authors, languages are endangered, almost extinct. The French linguist, Claude Hagège (born in Tunisia in 1936) eloquently sings the praises of ‘living languages’ (les langues vivantes) in his book, Put an End...

    • CHAPTER 2 What Do We Have in Mind When We Talk about Language?
      (pp. 10-13)

      ‘The case of language,’ Noam Chomsky posited in Language and Mind (1972: ix), ‘is particularly interesting because language plays an essential role in thinking […].’ David Crystal, in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language (1997), does not seem to contest this point: ‘It seems evident that there is the closest of relationships between language and thought: everyday experience suggests that much of our thinking is facilitated by language’ (14).

      Crystal goes on to ask an essential question: ‘But is there identity between the two? Is it possible to think without language? Or does our language dictate the ways in which we...

    • CHAPTER 3 What Do We See in the Term Worldview?
      (pp. 14-19)

      Worldview is a term with a colourful past. For many French scholars, it has an American origin and is associated primarily with what has come to be known as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, according to which ‘a language’s difference results in a different intellectual and affective structuring’ for the mind of the speaker of a language community (Dubois et al. 1994: 511, mT). The term has been traced back from its use by Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897 – 1941) and his teacher, Edward Sapir (1884 – 1939), to the work of the great anthropologist, Franz Boas (1858–1942), who is responsible...

    • CHAPTER 4 Boas
      (pp. 20-24)

      It is difficult for us to appreciate today the importance of Franz Boas’ Handbook of American Indian Languages, with its groundbreaking introduction in which he made a serious philological effort to present the complexities and subtleties of Amerindian languages to an audience which was inclined to believe that the thought, culture and language of these diverse peoples reflected a primitive state of evolution. Boas wrote his Handbook back in 1911, more than twenty years before the Nazis attempted to exterminate what they felt to be a race of Untermenschen. And he was writing in opposition to what was considered to...

    • CHAPTER 5 Sapir
      (pp. 25-32)

      It is truly surprising that a thinker of such versatility as Edward Sapir (1882 – 1939) should come to be reduced to the minor partner in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Sapir does have his defenders, but these tend to be specialists of his own work and, on the whole, little place has been found in contemporary linguistics for Sapir’s theory of personality, for example, a theory in which he strove to define the patterns and forms common to both the psychological functioning of the individual and to culture as a whole. Sapir’s mind was finely tuned to the examination of details...

    • CHAPTER 6 Whorf
      (pp. 33-50)

      Accounts in English of the relationship between language and worldview and theories of linguistic relativity have tended to concentrate on Whorf’s position, and consequently the influence of his work has been acknowledged more fully by scholars and studied in greater detail than either Boas’ or Sapir’s work. Perspicacious and stimulating accounts can be found in Malotki (1983), Lee (1996) and Lucy (1996), but if we are to understand the way thought concerning the relationship between language and worldview has tended to be limited to Whorf’s ideas in debates in English-speaking circles, it will be necessary to give a brief outline...

  6. Part II: Humboldt, Man and Language
    • CHAPTER 7 Worldview (Weltanschauung or Weltansicht)
      (pp. 53-57)

      Who was Wilhelm von Humboldt, this thinker who contemplated languages and tried to draw some bold conclusions about their nature and the nature of speech itself? He was born Baron Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1767 in Potsdam, Prussia. Jürgen Trabant, a present-day German Humboldt specialist, begins his Humboldt ou le sens de langage (Humboldt or the Sense of Language, published in 1992) by quoting the impression Humboldt made upon the French romantic poet, Chateaubriand. For the poet, Humboldt was a quiet man who would withdraw from society ‘to kill time by learning all the languages of the world and...

    • CHAPTER 8 Sprache
      (pp. 58-62)

      Before examining more fully the concept of Weltansicht as it appears in Humboldt’s work, we should first try to grasp the innovative conception of language that Humboldt worked with. Humboldt spoke of language (Sprache) in very vivid organic terms: and this was not simply a stylistic flourish. On the contrary, the organic imagery with which he thought of language and with which he sought to disentangle himself from other organic and inorganic metaphoric representations of language, were part of his conception of the faculty of speech as the formative organ of thought. The two main representations of language from which...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Work of the Mind
      (pp. 63-73)

      For Humboldt the division of a language into words and rules to be classified is a procedure that can be misleading. He believes this to be a scientific endeavour and it is one he engages in himself, but he is careful to delineate the boundaries of a scientific understanding of language when he says: ‘The break-up into words and rules is only a dead makeshift of scientific analysis’ (1999: 49). If this is so, it is because science can only ever analyse parts of language in isolation, abstracted from the context in which speech is uttered. This blinds science to...

    • CHAPTER 10 Form
      (pp. 74-80)

      Mental activity, the work of the spirit, forms language, and because ‘the existence of spirit as such can be thought of only in and as activity’ (Humboldt 1999: 49), it follows that language is constantly being fashioned and refashioned. Linguistic study obliges us to dismember the structure (Bau) of languages, though Humboldt reminds us that this dissection should not delude us into thinking that we have touched the essential core of a language when we manage to speak of its grammar and its structure. Humboldt suggests that linguistic study should rather view each language as ‘a procedure advancing by specific...

    • CHAPTER 11 Creativity, Culture and Character
      (pp. 81-96)

      As the friend of Schiller, Humboldt was influenced by the Storm and Stress pre-Romantic movement (Sturm und Drang) to which both Schiller and Goethe belonged. During the 1790s, Humboldt was engaged in working on Goethe’s epic poem, Hermann and Dorothy. It is not by chance then that the metaphors which structure Humboldt’s thought and the vocabulary that colours it are often reshaped from the words, concepts and metaphors common to the discourse of the Zeitgeist that Goethe and Schiller incarnated. Humboldt incessantly returns to formulations of an organic and sexual kind to describe the growth of languages as a process...

    • CHAPTER 12 Catching the Character
      (pp. 97-105)

      The project that Humboldt was outlining at the time of his death for the study of the individual characters of nations and languages in all their kaleidoscopic variety is an exciting and daunting one. Who can hope to master the world’s languages (or even a handful of them) to a degree of competence sufficient to allow him to compare them in any meaningful way? Even the question proves problematic. What do we mean by mastering a language? What do we mean by meaningfully comparing languages? The idea of mastering a language is usually reserved for foreigners and children who reach...

    • CHAPTER 13 A Seeing and Feeling Worldview
      (pp. 106-112)

      As we saw in the last chapter, we are faced then with two equally unsatisfactory extremes when it comes to comparing languages. On the one hand, the fragment can obscure the whole: taking Plato’s Greek to be a representative fragment of the Greek worldview can mislead us. On the other hand, the failure to focus on the parts of the whole (i.e. individual discourse) can lead us into a formal understanding which is not merely superficial but indeed blind to the actual nature of language as the means by which individuals express meaning.

      The comparison of worldviews, if that is...

    • CHAPTER 14 Four Dangers in the Comparative Approach
      (pp. 113-119)

      In the last chapter we considered the experience of confronting a foreign worldview and attempting to come to terms with a language’s character. The difficulty of the task should not be underestimated. Humboldt himself always stressed that his form of comparative philology would be both laborious and inconclusive. No doubt it would be wise to consider the failure met by others who have striven to make a meaningful contribution to the comparison of languages, before setting off unwittingly to make the same mistakes ourselves. Four forms of error lie in wait for anyone who embarks upon the comparison of languages....

    • CHAPTER 15 Reformulating the Worldview Hypothesis
      (pp. 120-143)

      If Humboldt’s dual concern for the human faculty of language and for the comparison of different language systems is a difficult and daunting one, then the enormity of the task of grasping a language’s character and comparing it with another should instil in us a sense of humility. We cannot hope to fit into boxes the language which contains us, our thoughts and all we say. Comparing languages will not provide us with an assortment of boxes which we can order in some conceptual warehouse. And yet, the desire to find some kind of order among the infinite variety of...

    • CHAPTER 16 A Final Word
      (pp. 144-146)

      Those who seek simple classifications for things will perhaps be disappointed with this short study of worldview which has led us back through Whorf, Sapir and Boas to discover something of Humboldt’s linguistic philosophy. Simple classifications might be useful when we are dealing with simple things. But for Humboldt, language is not made up of things: objects to be explored and catalogued. Nor was he enamoured of classifications. If he was wary of them, it was because classifications are so often used to pigeonhole languages. As such, divisions and dissections will more likely deform our perception of the living activity...

  7. Glossary
    (pp. 147-153)
  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 154-159)
  9. Index
    (pp. 160-164)