Notable Quotables

Natural man, whether simpleton or scientist, knows no more of the linguistic forces that bear upon him than the savage knows of gravitational forces.

Benjamin Whorf 

We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of s.r. [semantic reaction] and that the structure which a language exhibits, is automatically projected upon the world around us. This semantic power is indeed so unbelievable that I do not know anyone, even among well-trained scientists, who, after having admitted some argument as correct, does not the next minute deny or disregard (usually unconsciously) practically every word he had admitted, being carried away again by the structural implications of the old language ...


Alfred Korzybski

What is it that brings about such an ultimate connection between language and thinking? ... the mental development of the individual and his way of forming concepts depend to a high degree upon language. This makes us realize to what extent the same language means the same mentality.

Albert Einstein

The problems of language here are really serious. We wish to speak in some way about the structure of atoms.... But we cannot speak of atoms in ordinary language.

Werner Heisenberg

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group…. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community.

Edward Sapir

It was found [upon studying many languages] that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock and trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars.

 We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATORY [emphasis added]; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.

 We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.

 From this fact proceeds what I have called the “linguistic relativity principle,” which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.

 All that I have to say on the subject that may be new is of the PREMONITION IN LANGUAGE of the unknown, vaster world – that world of which the physical is but a surface or skin, and yet which we ARE IN, and BELONG TO … Speech is the best show man puts on … But we suspect the watching Gods perceive that the order in which his amazing set of tricks builds up to a great climax has been stolen – from the Universe!

 A change in language can transform our appreciation of the Cosmos. 

Benjamin Whorf 

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