Korzybski on linguistic relativism

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com


Sapir/Whorf contemporary Alfred Korzybski was independently developing his theory of general semantics, which was aimed at using language’s influence on thinking to maximize human cognitive abilities. Korzybski’s thinking was influenced by logical philosophy such as Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.[72] Although Korzybski was not aware of Sapir and Whorf’s writings, the movement was followed by Whorf-admirer Chase, who fused Whorf’s interest in cultural-linguistic variation with Korzybski’s programme in his popular work “The Tyranny of Words”. S. I. Hayakawa was a follower and popularizer of Korzybski’s work, writing Language in Thought and Action. The general semantics movement influenced the development of neurolinguistic programming, another therapeutic technique that seeks to use awareness of language use to influence cognitive patterns.

Korzybski independently described a “strong” version of the hypothesis of linguistic relativity.

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[emantic] r[eactions] and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us.

— Korzybski (1930)