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Bergtscheremissische Sprachstudien by G. J. Ramstedt

By G. J. Ramstedt

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Similarly, some categories that speakers of European languages assume to be a necessary part of nouns, like, for example, number or gender, may not be encoded in other languages. As Boas wrote, “It is entirely immaterial to the Kwakiutl whether he says, There is a house or There are houses … the idea of singularity or plurality must be understood either by the context or by the addition of a special adjective” (1911: 37). Although Boas did not claim that these differences in the linguistic encoding of experience have an impact on what speakers think or say (we need to get to the next generation of linguistic anthropologists for explicit statements about this issue), he did recognize the influence of the sounds of our native language on the ways in which we can hear and appreciate sound distinctions used by speakers of other languages.

2 The principle of linguistic relativity Boas’ discussion of the influence of one language on the ability of an individual to hear subtle differences in the sounds of another language is the first explicit statement of the ontological commitment to thinking of language as a non-neutral medium. His student Edward Sapir expanded this line of thought to include the idea that there are unconscious patterns hidden in the arbitrary ways in which languages classify the world and that these patterns, like the scales used in Western music, establish the range of choices that are available to us for expressing our thoughts and getting things done (Sapir 1927).

Sociolinguists and historical linguists have demonstrated that linguistic evolution has been shaped by many forces, including political circumstances that are not egalitarian. Although a fundamental tenet of linguistic science is that all languages and their dialects are of equal linguistic worth, history has repeatedly confirmed that some languages and dialects lack comparable or superior political clout and are therefore subjugated by others. Haugen (1972) examined language usage in ecological contexts where the circumstances surrounding linguistic behavior are routinely taken into account.

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