The Linguistic Relativity Argument

Published 27 Sep 2017

The linguistic relativity argument states that “language-induced differences in thought generate different realities” (Collin, 2002, p.81). Finn Collin (2002) identified two premises for the linguistic relativity argument: (1) “Language shapes thought; more specifically, that differences in language translate into differences in thought” and (2) “Through our thoughts, language reality determines the way reality is divided up” (Collin, 2002, p.81-82). In line with this, Collin quotes Edward Sapir who states, “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” (2002, p.84). The logical implication of such a view is that there is no single, determinate reality. There are realities. In a sense, these different realities are made possible by differences in language and thought.

The linguistic relativity argument then, is accounting for social facts (social reality) as a construction or generation by virtue of the different ways by which a linguistic community thinks, describes, encounters or appropriates for itself, reality. Since linguistic communities vary in the ways by which they think, describe, encounter or appropriate for themselves what reality is, the implication is that different languages produce different realities, hence, dubbed the linguistic relativity argument. Following this train of thought, the basis then, for saying that social facts are constructed is the very notion of linguistic relativity.

Collin argues that the linguistic relativity argument cannot be used to establish social constructivism. Again, the argument states that “language-induced differences in thought generate different realities” (Collin, 2002, p.81). The argument also tries to account for social facts (social reality) in such a way that (and it can be noticed that) through and by language, we can make classifications and descriptions about things in reality by recognizing certain properties in these things. Mutual recognition of these properties by the members of the linguistic community makes possible for the members to ascribe ‘terms’ corresponding to these things, which consequently makes them ‘determinate’. Collin argues that the fact that we employ classifying terms presupposes the existence of these things, and ultimately, reality. The argument therefore, does not establish that reality is a construction or generation. The linguistic relativity argument is not a proper and an adequate account of social facts.

I agree with Collin’s contention that the fact that we employ classifying terms presupposes the existence of a reality. In order to strengthen Collin’s point, I will try to explain it further by using the phenomenon of “naming” as an example. Collin’s argument is that classifying terms presuppose that there is a reality and thus, linguistic relativity cannot adequately account for the social construction thesis. On the phenomenon of naming, Wittgenstein states, “Naming is something like attaching a label to a thing. One can say that this is preparatory to the use of the word” (2001, p.11).

In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein claims that the process of naming is like attaching a label to a thing or an object. Names are labels, so to speak and it is this characterization of names as labels that explain why there is only an arbitrary relation between a name and its referent. Although this particular view may be regarded as sympathetic to the idea that reality is a construction, Collin’s argument still remains intact. The phenomenon of naming does not, in any way prove much nor does it logically lead us to the idea that reality is a construction or generation because of the fact that the phenomenon of naming itself presupposes the existence of a physical reality that we attempt to give names or labels or to categorize.


  • Collin, F. (2002). Social Reality. London: Routledge.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. Ed. G.E. Anscombe. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
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