i dream of being possible

thoughts on language without linguistic determinism

the viewpoint that our languages are critical sites of resistance to white supremacy and colonialism in all its forms is fairly common.

and it is a point that i largely agree with. our languages are important and a critical part of our cultures that ought to be nourished and cherished.


i quicly become troubled when this viewpoint is expressed in ways that make it fairly clear that the person is working within some level of linguistic determinism. i”ve elsewhere written about why i find linguistic determinism/relativism/the sapir-whorf hypothesis to be a not-so-good (actually really fucking terrible) thing.

but how do we recognize language as an important cultural repository for our beliefs, history, and worldviews without implicating ourselves within this framework of linguistic determinism or relativity?

first. language has no objective reality or existence.

this fairly mundane fact often seems to escape a lot of people or is simply forgotten when discussing language. but it is critical for understanding how language can encode our beliefs and worldviews without invoking determinism.

it is just that: language contains what we, as humans, put into it. we determine language. language does not determine us. this is really how and why language changes over time, why a word/concept will mean one thing but in a few generations mean another thing.

language, as a technology, does serve to encode intangible things like beliefs and worldviews. it is a technology of preservation, since it allows us to pass these beliefs and worldviews to other people, but allows them to travel through time.

basically: language expresses the worldview of a people but the worldview of the people does not actually depend on language.

second. oral and written traditions are important…

but they aren”t the only ways that we communicate and encode our beliefs and worldviews. a great example are rituals. while many rituals involve language, many of them also involve non-linguistic elements that carry as much meaning and importance as the linguistic elements.

or perhaps dancing. again, if this is done without music with lyrics, this is a method of encoding worldviews and cultures that does not depend on language even in the slightest. or maybe even music, since not all music involves language.

the intense focus and privileging of language as the most important way to access cultural repositories of belief and worldview often appears to discount the critical importance of these non-linguistic encodings.

to assert that one must know the language, otherwise you are not properly a member of the culture/people…

i may never get to the point where i”m able to learn Tagalog, but i feel my ancestors in my heart.

they communicate to me in a space beyond/beneath language.

but i”d never hear them if i was only listening for words.</p>