I read some essays on linguistic relativity while I was in high school in the late 1960s. I took the fundamental idea to be that people in different societies could receive and operate within somewhat different construals of the world while still being human, intelligent, and competent, and that these received construals could be related to the specifics of their diverse languages. These ideas seemed worthy of pursuit, and I was surprised over the next twenty years to find linguistic relativity almost uniformly disrespected by linguists and psychologists, and often by anthropologists. This book is an attempt to understand both the ideas behind linguistic relativity and the scorn the concept provokes in so many quarters.
“The tale grew in the telling,” wrote J. R. R. Tolkien at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, and while my ambition as a teller has been much more modest than his, this tale, too, has been many years a-growing. I particularly want to thank Paul Friedrich for years of inspiration and support, and Claude Faucheux, Mark Mancall, and Kevin Tuite for their encouragement and good ideas. The book is dedicated to my father, Harold J. Leavitt; I like to think that he would have gotten a kick out of it. It has benefitted from the specific comments of Bernard Bate, Gilles Bibeau, Pietro Boglioni, Bernard Chapais, Robert Crépeau, Regna Darnell, Jean DeBernardi, David Dinwoodie, Johannes Fabian, Michel de Fornel, Kellie O'Connor Gutman, Douglas Hofstadter, Dell Hymes, Maggie Kilgour, Friederike Knabe, Konrad Koerner, Guy Lanoue, David Leavitt, Penny Lee, Gérard Lenclud, Jean Lipman-Blumen, John Lucy, Bruce Mannheim, Margaret Paxson, Emily Schultz, Mary Scoggin, Sonia Sikka, Michael Silverstein, Pierrette Thibault, Jürgen Trabant, and Francis Zimmermann.