Humboldt's Philosophy of Language. Language and Thought

Essay, 2017
6 Pages


Culture is a value-network, which the expression of meaning is inevitably linked to language.
Therefore, culture and language are inseparable.
Yet, is language purely expressing our thoughts? In his book On Language: The Diversity of
Human Language Structure and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind,
Wilhelm von Humboldt, a German philosopher, linguist, diplomat and educator, pointed out
for the first time that, the nature of language influences the worldview of a nation (German:
"Just as no concept is possible without language, so also there can be no object for the mind,
since it is only through the concept, of course, that anything external acquires full being for
consciousness. But the whole mode of perceiving things subjectively necessarily passes over
into cultivation and the use of language."
- Humboldt, 1989
With regard to Humboldt's obscure writing and pivotal doctrine, further elaboration will not
be recounted in this paper. Only some relevant theories will be extracted to apply on the
interpretation of the relationship between language and thought.
Preset: everyone is proficient in language
Humboldt (1989) has a preset: language is personally owned by humans, which distinguishes
between humans and animals. In Discourse on the Method, Descartes (1994) has brought this
to attention that, the greatest difference between humans and animals is that animals could
never use words or other signs arranged as is competent to humans in order to declare their
thoughts to others. "Language is deeply entwined in the intellectual development of humanity
itself" (Humboldt, 1989), that is to say, every "spiritual being" (Humboldt, 1989) operates
language in a "constant and uniform way" (Humboldt, 1989) to achieve the purpose of
understanding. It should be common to all users within a language and such an element is
called "mental labor" (Humboldt, 1989).

The operation of language: phonetics
As Humboldt (1989) claimed language operates in a constant and uniform way, how do we
"operate language"? It is specifically based on a regular pattern, elevating the articulated
sound to an expression of thought. Herewith, it is generalised as phonetics. Articulated sound
refers to a clear pronunciation, for example, /siu2/ in Cantonese, /s/ is the consonant and /iu/
is the compound vowel producing a T2 contrastive lexical tone. However, /siu2/ does not
express a thought itself. To proffer an expression of thought to /siu2/, it is essential to follow
the "constant and uniform way" in Cantonese, giving /siu2/ a meaning. In Cantonese, /siu2/ is
, meaning small in English. It can also be used on behalf of the word (/diu2/) ,
meaning "to fuck" in Cantonese, as applied in a similar case in English, replacing "shit" with
"shoot". Without a doubt, the eventual expression of thought of /siu2/ is subject to the
Active and passive in language
Since language is a tool initiated by human's intellectuality on phonetics, it is evident that
thought influences language. From an objectively real-life point of view, language is active,
independent and spontaneous.
On the contrary, from a subjectively real-life perspective, each individual language user must
be subject to "time" and "space" when using a language. The "timeliness" refers to the
formality of the same language after several historical developments, whereas "space" refers
to the change of the same language in response to different social environment and
geographic setting. In Cantonese, for example, it is formed by the assimilation of the
language of Baiyue (groups of indigenous non-Chinese tribes) and the ancient Chinese in the
Tang and Song dynasties. Owing to the geographical condition, there are differences between
the Cantonese in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Hong Kong has frequent exchange with
English-speaking countries, therefore, under the influence of English, borrowed words,
code-mixing and code-switching are commonly found among Hong Kong speakers, which is
an impact of social environment. It is claimed that language is passive and dependent
(Humboldt, 1989).

As there is passive in language itself, language users will be subject to restrictions while
using the passive in language. These restrictions will in turn influence the thought of the
language users. To put it simply, our
existential situation is influencing the use of our
language, thus our speech and listening, then further our expression and understanding, and
finally our thought.
Take English, French and German as an example. There is present continuous tense in
English, while it is not found in both French and German. Present continuous tense is used to
express the continuous or progressive actions. Some commentators believe that the above
distinction on language tenses is due to the impact of Celtic languages (also as Keltic, branch
of the Indo-European language family, spoken right alongside English in the British Isles for
more than 1500 years) on English (McWhorter, 2006), which a textual research is hardly
made to prove it at present. On all account, present continuous tense shows an evident
difference between English, French and German in tenses. For example, "I am coming", it
means the action (coming) is being done particularly at the time of speaking. In English, a
positive sentence is formed by Subject + Auxiliary verb + Main verb. As shown in the
aforementioned sentence, the main verb is the present participle (base form of verb + ing), i.e.
"coming", while the auxiliary verb is "am". However, in French and German, there is no such
concept, so it is simply "je viens" and "ich komme" respectively, where the perception of an
on-going action is lost.
The continuous concept in English is even more unable to be understood in Chinese, as it has
no grammatical tenses but only aspect (a degree to which an action is completed, not
completed or in process; and for languages that have no grammatical tenses are named
isolated language in linguistics). For English beginners who are Chinese native, tenses is
spontaneously one of obstacles while learning English. In order to master English, it is
necessary for these Chinese speakers to accept a new worldview, which is entering another
culture and accepting another set of value-network.
Philosophically, the divergence of thought caused by the difference of language nature is
obvious. Heidegger (1996) always mentioned "being", which is "sein", an irregular verb in
German. It has the meaning of "be" in English, but it can also be interpreted as "have", "exist"
and "it is". In a German's perfect tense sentence, "sein" is put ahead the verb form, for
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Andrea Fung (Author), 2017, Humboldt's Philosophy of Language. Language and Thought, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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