Relativism in Language & Religion

Sapir-Whorf-GermanForeign languages have changed my perspective on the world. Or was it the use of foreign languages in foreign lands that changed me? I think it was the latter. Japanese, being outside my Indo-European Language Family, really stretched my mind and gave me new ways to organize thoughts. But I never felt handicapped with being able to say what I wanted to say in any language.

Language Relativism” is a belief that languages, by the nature of their very structure, embody a worldview and cause a fluent speaker of the language to carve up their world differently from speakers of other languages, especially if the other speakers are from languages of another language family.

“Language Relativism” is highly controversial. As perhaps you can tell, I fall on the “trivially true” side of the spectrum on this issue along with Steven Pinker and others. But very bright people disagree with us.


I am continually amazed at the parallels between linguistics and religious studies. Indeed, it was seeing how other religions were doing exactly what my religion was doing that opened my eyes to my own religion.  Seeing that the functions of other religions differed only in trivial ways the the functions of my faith that caused me to start leaving Christianity. See my post: “Hinduism was my Downfall“.

I don’t view religions as being primarily about beliefs but about how these beliefs can be used by the body of believers to serve social and psychological functions shared by us all. But certain religious thoughts and practices can change a believer to be very differently from another believer too. So as for Religious Relativism, I think significant differences actually do exist. So I guess when it comes to Religious Relativism I am a bit more to the right on the above scale.

By the way, “Language Relativism” is also known as the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis — more on that later.

Questions for readers: Do you see parallels here like I do?  Where do you fall on the scales.




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

4 responses to “Relativism in Language & Religion

  1. Hey Triangulations, nice post! Thanks for writing. I tend towards the true side of the relativism scale. In fact, I am currently working on using my language to join myself with my world. Check out my blog to see what I’m up to. I would love to hear what you think about I language. Maybe we can talk more. Thanks!

  2. Great piece. This subject should be explored at greater depth. There’s a lot of meat here. A related example comes to mind which i think strikes to the heart of what you’re saying: our gods. Draw a parallel and our gods have always reflected what we (as a species) generally know at the time, which is equally represented in the greater lexicon. Animal and weather gods to anthropomorphic family gods to more philosophically sound deistic notions of a natural/universal god, to the wise alien gods of the UFO religions. The gods got smarter as we did.

  3. Ian

    I agree, and the same process was at work in my leaving religious faith.

    I also agree. Sapir-Worf seems obvious to me, but only in terms of relatively shallow differences. In Welsh, for example, grass and sky use the same basic color word, glas (though when talking to English-folk, the Welsh often use a loan-word for ‘green’ to avoid confusion). Those kind of very shallow differences I think are present. But the idea that deep models of the way the world works are determined by language is not true, I think.

    I think culture has much deeper effects, and that is often indistinguishable from language, so I suspect a definitive answer is probably impossible.

  4. @ John Zande,
    Thanx. Yes I hope to pursue this more — lots of thoughts over the last 2 years.Thanks for speculating with me.

    @ Ian,
    I agree, culture as the deeper effects and are confused with language. Same with religion (often confused with culture).

    Interesting about Welsh for sky and grass — Japanese has the same word for Green and Blue. Maybe the Welsh founded Japan? 😉

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