I'm writing a paper on the Ju'Hoansi of South Africa for my anthropology class and I'm trying show how their egalitarian worldview might affect their language structure such as their lack of possessive pronouns. I remember skimming over a theory that stating a society's worldview affects language but I can't remember what it's called. What is the name of this theory?

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    Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 17 '15 at 4:31
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    Uh, well, actually, the Sapir-Whorf idea is that language structure affects cognition, rather than the other way around. I don't know of a theory that worldview affects language. There was an old idea that umlaut occurred in dialects of people living in the mountains, since they kept from losing too much heat by keeping their lips pursed. Amusing.
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 17 '15 at 4:39
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    I'm familiar with Sapir-Whorf but I'm looking for its converse. I know the theory has a name, just can't remember its name. Apr 17 '15 at 5:00
  • There is a book on the "philosophy of ntu", or some similar title, which claims a relationship between Bantu language structure and the idea that people are of the same stuff that all natural objects are. "ntu" is stuff, and "ba-" is the plural human classifier, thus "bantu" means people. But "ntu" can occur with other classifiers, as well, and so can represent stuff of all the sorts of the Bantu word classes. Maybe that's something like what you're looking for.
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 17 '15 at 7:02

When you write about that, it might be a good idea to accurately represent the facts of the language. For example, the language doesn't have special genitive case variants for pronouns, like English my, French mon etc. Instead, you just put the 1st person pronoun (or any possessor) before the head noun, as in mí g|à'ásì "my eyes" (1s eyes), dà'á g!ohsì (fire smoke) "the fire's smoke". When the possessor is a noun, possess can optionally be marked with a possessive particle ||'àn plus a pronoun referring to the possessor, as in dà'á ||'àn hì g!ohsì (fire poss. it(fire) smoke) "the fire's smoke". It also turns out that possessive marking is obligatory if the possessor noun is modified by an adjective, so dshàú gèsín ||'àn 'msi (woman other poss she food) "the other woman's food". If supposed "egalitarianism" means that they have no concept of possession, then you would predict that there is no way to say "my eyes" or "the other woman's food", but there is in fact a construction that is specific to expressing the notion of possession. Also, if there were no notion of possession, then there couldn't be a verb dcàá "steal" or a noun dcàákxàò "thief", since all stuff would be jointly owned


I'm not sure there's an accepted term for this. I think this could still be conceived of as a type of 'linguistic relativity', though. Especially, since there's always an interplay between 'reality', culture, and language even in cases of the Sapir-Whorf style of relativity.

Daniel Everett has been proposing a theory of how the Pirahã's evidentiality (and other) features are influenced by their cultural insistence on witness testimony for topics of conversation. He discusses it both in the context of and in contrast to linguistic relativity but I don't think he has a specific label for this position. (See e.g. this paper and his book).

  • I agree that both directions of influence can be referred to as 'linguistic relativism'. Didn't the anthropologist Levy-Bruhl believe in a kind of reverse Whorfianism? Maybe we should call it 'Levy-Bruhlism'? May 18 '15 at 23:21

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