Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: An Islamic Perspective on Linguistic Relativism
The importance of language in the formation of human civilizations and cultures is something that can never be overlooked. When we look around we come to know all the political and geographical multitudes and differences are the outcome of their linguistic variations. The division of states in India stands as a familiar case in illustrating the interconnectedness of culture and language, highlighting how language is intricately linked to both culture and civilization. The question at hand pertains to the role that language plays in these diverse cultures and civilizations. It has sparked debates about whether our capacity for thought enables us to use language, or if it is language itself that facilitates and shapes our thinking processes. Certainly, the prevailing perspective is that our brain's capacity enables us to formulate language, communicate, and think. However, it's worth noting that not everyone subscribes to this viewpoint. To draw a line, there has been some very hot debates going on about these questions, which will certainly make one’s jaw down! Before diving into the core discussions, it's essential to establish a foundational understanding of language. To that end, this brief article aims to provide a concise overview of current trends in linguistic debates, focusing on aspects relevant to our interests. Subsequently, we will explore how language can influence our t houghts and behaviors, supported by relevant examples presented by proponents of this view. Finally, we will turn our attention to the Islamic perspective on language in a broader context, delving into matters of particular concern to us.
We often make the mistake of thinking that the connection between us and the language is usage of words and sentences. Well, that’s one part of it, but there is more. Vocal and written methods are the ways to communicate between two persons that will require words and a specific linguistic package. But according to structuralism, as Noam Choamsky puts it, our thoughts are formulated through a medium of language. Not the wordy-vocal one. He rather advocates for an intrinsic capacity of the brain for linguistic activities. Therefore, a man who is blind, deaf and mute will too have his own language through which he creates the relationship between the subjects and predicate. Thereby a new thought is born.
Individuals who have mastered an external language and possess the ability to engage in communication with others will naturally translate their "inner language" into the external language. It is this external language that is really the matter of discussion here. Structuralism states that the external language can, or has, the capacity to denote the internal language completely and comprehensively. Just like the internal language can depict and represent the reality or the perception as it is in our mind, the external language too facilitates him to articulate those perceived reality through words. Note that what is said as internal language here is often referred to as ‘thought’ by the common. Therefore, as structuralists argue, the external language has a direct or linear connection with the reality that has been apprehended. This would establish that the words do have an intrinsic or fundamental connection with its meaning.
In contrast, post-structuralists reject the idea of an inherent human brain capacity for language, proposing that language is a skill acquired externally, rather than being innate. It is because this usage of external language is an alienated factor, the depiction of the actual perception of reality by our mind, which is not completely or accurately translated to the words and sentences. This would imply, as Derrida states, that the words do not have the capacity to refer to the actual reality in our mind. The meaning of the words are mere subjective and not fundamental, because the external language does not share the intrinsic relationship with the inner-language, or thoughts, contrary to what structuralists argued. Therefore, no matter how hard you try to pick your best and perfect words, the reality will always stay unknown. This notion of linguistic post-structuralism has been criticized as a deconstructionist postmodern ideology with paradoxical outcomes. If the reality cannot be conveyed, the meaning is impossible to communicate, then why do they even bother publishing books and articles to prove their points?!
In recent times, a new discussion has come forth which, like post-structuralism, goes around the question of linguistic representation and the meaning of words. We call it the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or simply linguistic relativism. But unlike post-structuralism, the advocates of linguistic relativism do not argue the meaninglessness of the external language, but rather they say the language we use has a direct effect on our internal language or, in other word, thought. Which would imply that the language we use for communication will determine our thoughts and that a person's native language restricts their ability to think about certain concepts. There have been major approaches regarding this theme, namely linguistic absolutism, which is a more radical approach and soft determinism. The core idea about this theory in general was presented by the anthropologist Edward Sapir and his linguist pupil Benjamin Lee Whorf. This theory is also known as Whorfianism. As we mentioned, the effect or the influence of language on our thoughts will extend to our characters, personality, perspectives and depiction of reality.
Linguistic absolutism or hard determinism implies that no matter what we do or how hard we try, we cannot escape the shackles of the language we use. Therefore, a bilingual or polylingual person can have a different perception and worldview of the same reality when using different languages. Due to the intrinsic disparities between these languages, a direct comparison of these two distinct realities becomes unfeasible. On the other hand, soft determinism says that language doesn’t ‘completely’ determine our thoughts, but just influence them. The prime factor for this influence, or the determinism in the first case, is the grammatical structure and the vocabulary-richness of that language. For example, the word “എത്രാമത്തെ” in Malayalam which refers to the inquiry about the numerical position of something in a linear sequence. This word lacks a definite translation in English or Arabic, therefore while speaking in these two languages we cannot possibly think about asking a one word question like in Malayalam, instead we divert the thought altogether to something else, without even knowing it. In an American tribal language in Hippo culture, the grammatical tense for past is not found. For that reason, we unknowingly disregard the notion of the past in our thoughts from the beginning. Likewise, if we use a language that does not use any form of word for ‘gratitude’, we would not feel a need to be thanked while using that language!
The question centers on the Islamic perspective on language. While there isn't a definitive stance within Islamic ideology on relativism, which is a relatively new concept, Islam does contain fundamental beliefs and principles concerning language and its origins. The prevailing view among the majority of Muslim scholars asserts that early languages, including every language, have a divine origin, (wadh’iyy) which means that humans lack the innate capacity to independently create languages from scratch. It is suggested that language, among other "names," was one of the teachings that Adam (A) received from Almighty Allah shortly after his creation. There have been debates surrounding the concept of a divine "first language" as the precursor to all languages, while some contend that language is a human creation from the outset, and that God's assistance in the development of languages is similar to His guidance in other human activities.
On an extreme radical level, some scholars including Ahmed bin Hambal (r) argued that language has a direct and uninterrupted relationship with the Almighty and the ontological reality. They say that the Qur'an, in its Arabic form, is from Allah Himself. In the occult and esoteric culture and tradition of Islam this implication has a significant impact. This ontological connection between the language and the reality is what facilitates the power of talisman and other occult practices. Enchantments, what we say as Dhikr, thus have a real power to influence the external world. The Egyptian hieroglyphic languages too had a similar reading, as the ancient Egyptians believed their language sacred and revealed by the God Himself or, as they call, the God Thoth.
When it comes to the modern problems of language, Islam does not see as the post-structuralists say that language is incapable of referring to reality, nor does it imply that language ‘determines’ our thoughts and denies freewill. But in Islamic tradition, there is a strong belief that language, particularly Semitic languages, possesses a divine connection. This belief is grounded in the conviction that God's design does not include redundancies or the provision of synonyms, rendering the possibility of precise translation largely elusive. Some scholars believe that the reason why Islam insists on the Arabic language for the prayer and Qur’an is because those meanings could never be conveyed in any other languages. Alongside, Islamic culture has an undeniable effect on the Arabic language, by shaping the use of specific terminologies and providing etymological contributions to the vocabulary. Therefore, if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is considered to be true, Arabic language will be the only language through which we can understand Islam completely as it is. Probably that was the reason for determining Arabic as the language of Muslim in the hereafter, where even the non-Arabs could understand and speak Arabic.
Chomsky, N. (1962). Syntactic Structures. Paragon Publishing.
Derrida, J. (1967). Of Grammatology.
Głaz, A. (2021). Linguistic Worldview(s): Approaches and Applications. Routledge Studies in Linguistics.
Lee, P. (1996). The Whorf Theory Complex: A Critical Reconstruction. Studies in the History of the Language Sciences.
Subki, T. (1350). Jam'ul Jawami'. Cairo, Egypt.
Whorf, B. (1956). Language, Thought and Reason. The MIT Press.
About the author
Mohammad Thaqiyyudheen, S/o Abdul Jaleel Hudawi, is from Vengoor. He is currently a postgraduate research scholar at Darul Huda Islamic University in Chemmad. His keen interests include Islamic philosophy, esotericism, mysticism, science, and academics. His ultimate goal is to become a professional writer dedicated to promoting Islamic values. His past achievements in Sibaq National Artfest'22 have provided valuable inspiration for his future pursuits
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily mirror Islamonweb’s editorial stance.