Linguistic Theory, Linguistic Diversity and Whorfian Economics

  • Nigel Fabb


I begin this chapter by illustrating what theoretical linguists do and why generative linguistics in particular has argued that linguistic data is more abstract and more complex than at first appears. I then illustrate language diversity by comparing aspects of two languages, English and Ma’di, an East African language. Sections 1.2 and 1.3 focus on specific aspects of linguistic data, which are chosen to illustrate general points about linguistic theory and linguistic diversity. In Section 1.4, I briefly note several different theories of linguistic diversity which explore why languages vary and whether variation is limited by internal (psychological) or external (cultural) factors. In Section 1.5, I examine the ‘Whorfian’ hypothesis that linguistic form has a causal relation with thought and behaviour, summarize some of the relevant psycholinguistic work and then examine some articles by economists which claim causal relations between linguistic and social variation. Based in part on what I have said about linguistic theory and linguistic diversity, and in particular the abstractness of linguistic data, I will argue that the economists’ claims cannot be sustained. In the final part of the chapter I discuss some ways in which stylistic variation within a language might affect thought.


Noun Phrase Linguistic Diversity Linguistic Theory Constituent Structure Linguistic Form 
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  1. This is a blog on evolutionary linguistics, which has involved extensive critical discussion of correlations between social and linguistic factors, including some of the work in economics.
  2. The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). The largest database of typological linguistic information, freely available online.
  3. Syntactic Structures of the World’s Languages (SSWL): Another freely available online typological database, strongly influenced by generative linguistics.
  4. A catalogue of over 7,000 languages of the world.

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© Nigel Fabb 2016

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  • Nigel Fabb

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